Podcast: The Chilling Fate of Palinurus (Aeneid 5.847–871)

Seth Levin discusses the character of Palinurus in Vergil’s Aeneid

Palinurus falls from the stern of a ship into the sea, the God of Sleep flies away with a branch in his hand. Engraving from a German children’s picture-book version of the Aeneid by G. J. Lang and G. C. Eimmart, 1688.
Palinurus falls from the stern of a ship into the sea, the God of Sleep flies away with a branch in his hand. Engraving from a German children’s picture-book version of the Aeneid by G. J. Lang and G. C. Eimmart, 1688.

Cui vix attollēns Palinūrus lūmina fātur:
‘Mēne salis placidī vultum flūctūsque quiētōs
ignōrāre iubēs? Mēne huic cōnfīdere mōnstrō?
Aenēān crēdam (quid enim?) fallācibus aurīs          850
Tālia dicta dabat, clāvumque adfīxus et haerēns
nusquam āmittēbāt oculōsque sub astra tenēbat.
Ecce deus rāmum Lēthaeō rōre madentem
vīque sopōrātum Stygiā super utraque quassat          855
tempora, cūnctantīque natantia lūmina solvit.
Vix prīmōs inopīna quiēs laxāverat artūs,
et super incumbēns cum puppis parte revulsā
cumque gubernāclō liquidās prōiēcit in undās
praecipitem ac sociōs nēquīquam saepe vocantem;           860
ipse volāns tenuīs sē sustulit āles ad aurās.
Currit iter tūtum nōn sētius aequore classis
prōmissīsque patris Neptūnī interrita fertur.
Iamque adeō scopulōs Sīrēnum advecta subībat,
difficilīs quondam multōrumque ossibus albōs          865
(tum rauca adsiduō longē sale saxa sonābant),
cum pater āmissō fluitantem errāre magistrō
sēnsit, et ipse ratem nocturnīs rēxit in undīs
multa gemēns cāsūque animum concussus amīcī:
‘Ō nimium caelō et pelagō cōnfīse serēnō,           870
nūdus in ignōtā, Palinūre, iacēbis harēnā.’

Scarcely raising his eyes Palinurus says: ‘You order me to forget what I know about the appearance of the gentle salty sea and to forget the tranquil waves? To place my trust in this monster? For how could I entrust Aeneas to these fallacious winds, as I am often deceived by the guile of the serene sky?’ He spoke these words, and grasping and clinging to the helm, he never lost his grip and kept his eyes on the stars. But behold, the god shakes above both of his temples a branch dripping with the dew of Lethe, a branch stupefied with the power of the Styx, and although Palinurus tried to resist, his floating eyes weakened. Scarcely an unexpected sleep relaxed his first limbs, and reclining above him, the god threw Palinurus, who called out to his friends many times in vain, headlong into the peaceful waves with a plucked out part of the stern and rudder; and the god flying as a bird, carried himself along the thin breezes. The fearless fleet traverses the voyage on the sea in no more danger than was foretold by the promise of father Neptune. And now the departing fleet approached the crags of the Sirens, white with the bones of many men. Formerly it was difficult to traverse, (at that time the rough rocks were resounding from afar with the constant waves). When Aeneas felt that his wavering ship was wandering without a helmsman, he steered the ship himself on the waves of the night, terrified by the fate of his friend and lamenting much: ‘O Palinurus, confident too much in the sky and peaceful ocean, you will be thrown naked onto an unknown shore.’

Palinurus is an unlucky soul struck down by fate and the gods so that Aeneas might reach destined Italy. As Aeneas’ helmsman, he is visited by Somnus in the end of Book Five of the Aeneid, and is instructed to rest his eyes and let Somnus take over steering the fleet. However, Palinurus does not listen and is put to sleep by the god, and falls into the ocean. The reason why Palinurus dies in this manner is because earlier in Book Five, Neptune promises Venus that Aeneas will safely reach Latium on calm waters, but only if a single life in given in return. Palinurus’ main appearance is in Book Five, but he also makes an appearance in Book Six when Aeneas travels to the Underworld. During this scene, Palinurus begs Aeneas to give his bones a proper burial, and the Sibyl promises Palinurus that the people who discover Palinurus’ body “will appease your bones, will build you a tomb and pay your tomb due rites and the site will bear the name of Palinurus now and always” (Aeneid 6.379-80). But why is Palinurus unfairly chosen to die? Palinurus’ death fits into Vergilian pattern of death taking place at the end of books, or sections, of the Aeneid. In Book Two, Creusa dies in the final lines; in Book Three, Anchises does; and in Book Four, the final scene is the suicide of Dido. Not only do these characters all die at the end of these books, but their deaths in some way help Aeneas to arrive safely in Latium. They were all subject to fate and the intervention of the gods. This principle, as discussed by historian of religion Walter Burkert, is called pars pro toto, and it refers to “accepting the small loss in order to save the whole.” Vergil uses it because it “is highly rational [to employ] and highly emotional at the same time” (Burkert 51).

Through his use of pars pro toto, Vergil creates a rather eerie and somber tone in this passage. Although Vergil uses a lot of adjectives noting how peaceful the ocean and sky were during Palinurus’ death, those like placidi, quietos, sereni, and liquidas to name a few, Palinurus dies vocantem socios nequiquam, “calling out to his comrades in vain,” while he is thrown headlong into the ocean, drowning without any “indication that anyone heard the helmsman’s cries” (Fratantuono, 719). This eerie tone is especially present when Vergil writes about how the fleet approached the crags of the Sirens, which were white with the bones of many men. Sirens are mythological creatures, half human, half bird who lived on cliff-sides and would lure passing travelers to them by singing pleasant songs. Then, they would wreck the approaching ships, killing the sailors (Hinz). This detail about the Sirens could have been omitted, but Vergil cleverly writes about the Sirens to enhance the somber tone of Palinurus’ death, as “sleep had to work quickly so as to ensure that Palinurus could be cast overboard as a quasi-offering to the Sirens” (Fratantuono, 721).

Further adding to the eerie tone of this passage are Vergil’s final words in Aeneas’ epitaph to Palinurus at the end: ‘nudus in ignota, Palinure, iacebis harena’ (5.871). Palinurus will eventually wash up on the Italian shore, but Vergil notes that this shore will be ignota, or unknown. Palinurus is lost forever, and no matter how hard the Trojans search for Palinurus’ body, it will forever remain a mystery as to its whereabouts. Palinurus’ body is also nudus, or naked, stripped of its former Trojan distinction to whoever happens upon it. Vergil uses an eerie tone for this section because it complements the unfair fate of Palinurus. Everything seems to be going great for the Trojans after the games Aeneas holds for Anchises in Book Five, until Palinurus is unjustly chosen for death. The eerie tone in this passage also sends chills down your spine, forcing you to shudder at the dark fate of an innocent victim.

Besides the tone, another aspect of Vergil’s portrayal of Palinurus which I find interesting is the dichotomy between his brief speech in the beginning of this section and Aeneas’ at the end. Palinurus makes it very evident that he does not trust the calm waves and the clear sky. Palinurus is an experienced helmsman, and would not easily be thrown overboard by the worsening of conditions. However, “in the last lines of the book Aeneas laments the steersman’s fate and comments, pathetically inappropriately as it seems in view of Palinurus’ earlier indignant refusal to trust the elements, that Palinurus died through overconfidence in the calm sea and sky” (Nicoll, 459). It seems odd for Vergil to credit Palinurus with being a great helmsman, only to have Aeneas discredit this distinction a mere twenty lines later. However, it is not uncommon for Aeneas to be ignorant of the facts, contrary to other epic heroes. When Aeneas is fighting for Troy in Book Two, for example, Venus has to come down to show him how the gods were destroying Troy and there was no hope in saving the city. Similarly, in the Underworld, Aeneas sees Dido for the first time since leaving Carthage and has no idea she killed herself because he left. Fortunately for Palinurus, Aeneas eventually realizes that divine foul-play was involved when he meets Palinurus in the Underworld.

There are many instances in this passage which exemplify Vergil’s distinct style. He employs vocabulary in this section in order to generate a more epic emotion to the lines. In line 861, he uses ales (“bird,” literally “wing”) to describe Somnus flying away from Palinurus, instead of using more colloquial terms such as avis or volucris. Additionally, Vergil does not use mare even once to describe the ocean, instead opting to use the epic word aequor in line 862. For the other instances when Vergil mentions the ocean, he uses nouns such as salis, fluctus, and undas to describe features of the ocean, which further enhance the imagery of the scene, contributing to the epic feel.

Another stylistic feature present within this passage which is characteristically Vergilian is the repetition of an idea using different sets of words. In Palinurus’ short speech alone there are two examples of repetition of the same idea. The first is in line 848: mene salis placidi vultum fluctusque quietos. Palinurus references the ocean twice in the adjective-noun pair salis placidi vultum and fluctus quietos. The example in Palinurus’ speech is in lines 850-51: Aenean credam (quid enim?) fallacibus auris et caeli totiens deceptus fraude sereni? This time fallacibus auris and caeli sereni describe the treachery of the weather. These two examples of repetition allow the reader to better picture the scenery Palinurus is currently experiencing, adding to the vividness of the poem.

To summarize, this passage at the end of Book Five is dark, as it highlights the fated death of an innocent victim, while sticking to the Vergilian theme of death at the end of sequential books, or pars pro toto.


Burkert, Walter. Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Fagles, Robert, trans. Virgil: The Aeneid. London: Penguin, 2010.

Fratantuono, Lee, and R. Alden Smith. Vergil: Aeneid 5: Text, Translation, and Commentary. Leiden: Brill, 2015.

Hinz, Berthold, “Sirens.” In Maria Moog-Grunewald, ed., Brill’s New Pauly Supplements I – Volume 4: The Reception of Myth and Mythology.

Nicoll, W. S. M. “The Sacrifice of Palinurus.” Classical Quarterly 38 (1988): 459–72.

Thomas, Richard F., Jan M. Ziolkowski, Anna Bonnell-Freidin, Christian Flow, and Michael B. Sullivan. The Virgil Encyclopedia. Malden: Wiley Blackwell, 2014.

Podcast: Ode to a Trumpeter (Aeneid 6.162-174)

Hugh Downs discusses the character of Misenus in Vergil’s Aeneid.

Triton. Bronze sculpture by Giambologna, 1560-70. Metropolitan Museum, New York
Triton. Bronze sculpture by Giambologna, 1560-70. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

There are many stories in Roman mythology that involve mortals challenging the gods to contests. One of the best known is the tale of Arachne, the weaver who thought she was better than Minerva. Another less well-known story is that of Marsyas and Apollo. Marsyas was a satyr who challenged Apollo to a music contest but lost. More often than not, these stories do not end happily for the mortals. Arachne was turned into a spider and Marsyas was tied to a tree and flayed alive. This podcast will focus on another, more obscure character who challenged the gods and faced their wrath: Misenus, Aeneas’ herald.

Misenus’ death occurs towards the beginning of Book 6. Aeneas and the Trojans have finally landed in Italy at Cumae. Aeneas seeks out the Sibyl and, after performing the required sacrifices, entreats her to tell him what lays in store for his weary band. The Sibyl assures him he will reach Lavinium but warns him that he will find war upon his arrival. Aeneas then begs the Sibyl to show him to the Underworld so that he can visit his father Anchises. The Sibyl tells him that he must first seek out a golden bough sacred to Proserpina and bring it back with him; this is his key to the underworld. Before he leaves, she tells Aeneas that one of his companions lies dead and must be properly laid to rest before he can begin his descent. This is where Misenus appears. The original Latin is as follows:

Atque illī Mīsēnum in lītore siccō,
ut vēnēre, vident indignā morte perēmptum,
Mīsēnum Aeolidēn, quō nōn praestantior alter
aere ciēre virōs Mārtemque accendere cantū. 165
Hectoris hic magnī fuerat comes, Hectora circum
et lituō pugnās īnsignis obībat et hastā.
postquam illum vītā victor spoliāvit Achillēs,
Dardaniō Aenēae sēsē fortissimus hērōs
addiderat socium, nōn īnferiōra secūtus. 170
Sed tum, forte cavā dum personat aequora conchā,
dēmēns, et cantū vocat in certāmina dīvōs,
aemulus exceptum Trītōn, sī crēdere dignum est,
inter saxa virum spūmōsā immerserat undā.

Vergil spends the next 50 some lines describing the preparations the Trojans made for Misenus’ funeral. He concludes the scene with the following lines:

At pius Aenēās ingentī mōle sepulcrum
impōnit suaque arma virō rēmumque tubamque
monte sub āëriō, quī nunc Mīsēnus ab illō
dīcitur aeternumque tenet per saecula nōmen.

Here is my interpretation of the Latin:
But when they returned to the shore,
they found Misenus cold in undeserved death on the dry sand.
Misenus, son of Aeolus, second to none in rousing men
And inciting Mars with a trumpet’s call.
First a companion of great Hector, he was famous
For fighting around the prince with both horn and spear.
After Hector was stripped of life by victorious Achilles,
Misenus, most brave of heroes, fell in with Dardan Aeneas, equal of Hector.
But then, by chance while Misenus was making the seas resound
With a hollow conch, he recklessly challenged the gods to a contest of song.
Envious Triton seized the man, if the story is to be believed,
And among the rocks drowned him in the crashing waves.
…and Pius Aeneas established his tomb on a huge mound,
And lay down Misenus’ arms and oar and trumpet
Below the lofty mountain, which from that point on has been
called Misenum and will hold that name for all time.

There are some contextual notes that I’d like to make which I think will be helpful for better understanding the section. Aeolus, Misenus’ father, was the keeper of the winds, so it is fitting that his son should be a renowned trumpeter. The conch was Triton’s “special instrument” (Austin, 91). so it makes sense that he specifically would punish any mortal who dared to challenge the gods with it. The place referred to here at the end is the modern day Cape Miseno, the northwest headland of the Bay of Naples. During Vergil’s time it was a popular vacation spot for Rome’s elite and housed many luxurious villas (Ganiban, 833). It was also the site of an important naval base during Augustus’ reign (McKay, 8). The topography of the cape lends itself to Vergil’s tale of Misenus as it bears a striking resemblance to a burial mound. The sounds the wind makes as it travels across the landscape through caves and grass are said to resemble to some degree those of a trumpet, strengthening the connection to Misenus (McKay, 7). By placing the death of Misenus here, Vergil is providing a link between the mythical past of his poem and the present day (Austin, 108). His Roman audience would have been very familiar with Cape Miseno, and making this connection would help them visualize and connect with the story more.

These lines provide us with good examples of many stylistic features common to Vergil. For one thing, Vergil very often uses words that “are more at home in poetry than prose”; these “add to the grandeur” of the poem and serve to make it feel truly epic (O’Hara, 255). Sicco; peremptum; lituo; obibat; aequora; spumosa; and immerserat are all examples of words found much more often in poetry than prose.

Another common stylistic feature found in these lines are assonance and alliteration. Alliteration had been used in Roman poetry long before Vergil came onto the scene, and Vergil uses it sparingly so as not to appear archaic (O’Hara, 252). vita victor spoliavit in line 168 is a good example of alliteration with the v’s, and line 165 contains both alliteration and assonance in aere ciere…accendere cantu. The latter is especially interesting as Vergil uses the devices to imitate to some degree the trumpeting of Misenus (Austin, 90).

Epanalepsis can also be found in this section. This is the unnecessary repetition of a word or phrase from a previous line so as to linger over an idea to add pathos or emphasis (O’Hara 253). This is seen with the repetition of Misenum in the first 3 lines. There is also repetition with Hectoris…Hectora in line 166, which serves both as a reminder of “Trojan pride and sorrow” and to emphasize the honored position Misenus held (Austin, 91).

The reason I like the Misenus story (apart from the fact that he’s a literal blowhard), is the message it conveys about the relationship between gods and man. The story, like those of Arachne and Marsyas, shows that the gods thought themselves superior to man and did not take lightly to mortal challenges. Nor did they have any qualms about killing mortals who challenged their power. I think this humanizes the gods to a certain extent, because it shows that they could be petty too, just like humans.

Thank you for listening, and I hope you now understand more about the character and significance of Misenus!


Austin, R.G. P. Vergili Maronis Aeneidos, Liber Sextus. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Ganiban, Randal. “Misenus,” in Richard Thomas and Jan M. Ziolkowski, eds. The Virgil Encyclopedia, vol. 2. (Chichester, West Sussex, UK : Wiley Blackwell, 2014), 833.

McKay, Alexander G. “Aeneas’ Landfalls in Hesperia.” Greece & Rome 14 (1967): 3–11.

O’Hara, James. “Virgil’s Style,” in The Cambridge Companion to Virgil, Charles Martindale, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Podcast: Creusa’s Farewell (Aeneid 2.776-789)

Michelle Hoffer discusses Creusa’s farewell speech to Aeneas near the end of Book 2 of Vergil’s Aeneid.

Creusa Appearing to Aeneas (print published in London in 1781, after a painting by Maria Cosway). Aeneas, in armour, staring up on the right, stepping forward to the left and throwing his arms out to try and embrace Creusa, who floats in mid-air, naked holding a veil billowing around her and looking down to the right at him, in the background, Troy burns. Source: The British Museum.
Creusa Appearing to Aeneas (print published in London in 1781, after a painting by Maria Cosway). Aeneas, in armour, staring up on the right, stepping forward to the left and throwing his arms out to try and embrace Creusa, who floats in mid-air, naked holding a veil billowing around her and looking down to the right at him, in the background, Troy burns. Source: The British Museum.

‘Quid tantum īnsānō iuvat indulgēre dolōrī,
ō dulcis coniūnx? Nōn haec sine nūmine dīvum
ēveniunt; nec tē comitem hinc portāre Creǖsam
fās, aut ille sinit superī rēgnātor Olympī.
Longa tibi exsilia et vāstum maris aequor arandum,       780
et terram Hesperiam veniēs, ubi Lȳdius arva
inter opīma virum lēnī fluit agmine Thybris.
Illīc rēs laetae rēgnumque et rēgia coniūnx
parta tibī; lacrimās dīlēctae pelle Creǖsae.
Nōn ego Myrmidonum sēdēs Dolopumve superbās       785
aspiciam aut Grāīs servītum mātribus ībō,
Dardanis et dīvae Veneris nurus;
sed mē magna deum genetrīx hīs dētinet ōrīs.
Iamque valē et nātī servā commūnis amōrem.’

Did she trip and fall over burning wood and lose sight of him? Was she grabbed from behind by a Greek and stabbed through the heart? Did she cry out his name as he became smaller in the distance? Did the blazing walls of a nearby house collapse on her as she fled? Or could she simply just not keep up? These are questions that we will never have the answers to, because as Aeneas and his family fled the burning Troy he told his wife to follow him “at a distance” and never looked back to make sure she was safe until it was too late. For this, he bears not only the guilt he takes on himself, but the blame of generations of readers who cannot understand why he did not protect her, why he did not let her go in front, why he did not look back.

However, this is not the reputation he deserves, at least not in Creusa’s eyes. If you look closely at the words she chooses in her farewell speech, like dulcis, comitem, dilectae and nati communis amorem, it becomes clear that these two shatter the stereotype of Roman husbands being tyrants over their wives. These two were in love. That much is clear through her words. There is a deep emotional connection embedded in this speech and it paints a picture for the reader of the love they shared, helping us to feel the pain of his loss.

Creusa, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, was Aeneas’ Trojan wife whom he loses as he flees the burning city with his father and son, asking her to follow them longē or “at a distance” (2.711). Aeneas only realizes that he has lost her when he arrives at the meeting point outside the city, and immediately rushes back, only to be confronted by her shade, who delivers a moving and prophetic speech before her spirit disappears from sight. While Creusa’s final speech is the only real window we have into her character, we are provided a telling glimpse into who she was as a wife, mother, and catalyst for Aeneas’ fateful journey.

While Vergil is well known for modeling his works on those of his great predecessor Homer, Homer himself “does not have any character named Creusa, nor does he include any mention of a wife of Aeneas” (Cassali, 312). In fact the “name Creusa for the wife of Aeneas is not attested before the Augustan age”, in which both Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Livy mention her in their respective works (ibid.). In some of the earliest versions of the myth, Aeneas’ wife is named Eurydica, but “perhaps feeling that the name could not be dissociated from the Orpheus legend, Vergil accepted the account that her name was Creusa” (Briggs, 43). However, while Vergil may have accepted this origin, there are many textual clues that suggest the story of Orpheus and Eurydice was not far from his mind.

Through both his word choice and his thematic parallels, it is clear that Vergil borrowed the template of a lost wife from the Orpheus and Eurydice episode in the Georgics (4.453–527). Both Aeneas and Orpheus attempt to save their wives from dire situations, and in their attempted escape both men tell their wives to follow behind them. Ultimately, both fail. Both wives appear to their husbands after they are lost and are afforded one final speech. Perhaps the most interesting difference is that “Orpheus loses Eurydice for ‘looking back’ at her, while Aeneas loses Creusa for ‘not looking back’ at her.” (Casali, 312). Whether this is meant to speak anything to the quality of a husband Aeneas was to Creusa is widely debated. (Grillo 2010 is a fascinating discussion on what Aeneas’ loss of Creusa says about his pietas, arguing that he should not be absolved of all guilt, as he was knowingly and intentionally neglectful of his wife.)

Although Aeneas seems, at least on the surface, to be to blame for Creusa’s death, it is apparent in her speech that she does not see it this way, as she speaks gently and without resentment to her dulcis coniunx (2.776). She not only tries to soothe his guilt by reminding him that “these things did not happen without divine will” (non haec sine numine divum eveniunt, 2.776) but also by revealing that through her death she escaped becoming a slave to the Greeks, and instead now rests in the company of the gods. While he will move on, “she will remain in her homeland Troy” (Khan 2001, 909), and seems to be at peace with that. She is not resentful of his future happiness, but instead seems to take comfort in knowing that he will find happiness in the terram Hesperiam (2.781). In this way, her speech “is a combination of farewell, consolatio to assuage Aeneas’ guilt (not sharpen or prolong it), and divinatio, to point his way ahead” (Jones, 291).

She concludes her speech with the same gentleness with which it began, asking Aeneas to “preserve your love for our son” (2.789). She knows that the road ahead for her husband is a difficult one, but even still, “she ends by telling him not to fail in his love for their son” (Jones, 291), as she knows he will soon enough be taking a new wife. In her final words, Vergil shows us that above all else, she was a concerned mother, putting her son’s life and future at the forefront of both her and her husband’s mind. She also uses the word communis (2.789) meaning “common” or “shared,” perhaps in an attempt to remind him that part of her will forever live on in this person they created together, and that to preserve his love for their son is to preserve his love for her also.

Vergil puts his stamp on this speech through the imagery in his words and the themes he so seamlessly weaves in. Creusa depicts the flowing Tiber with “the limpid sounds of l and y” which “begin to give the new land certain charm” (Jones, 291), as if the words themselves are flowing gently through the fields. Vergil goes on to use “a strong but not excessive alliteration of the letter r” (ibid.) with res laetae regnumque et regia coniunx in line 783, before falling back into the gentle sounds of l and y as she begs him not to cry for her saying lacrimas dilectae pelle Creusae (2.784). However, Vergilian themes are certainly present as well, the most prominent of which is the future founding of Rome. This is the first true foreshadowing of that future to Aeneas, and while Creusa admits that the journey will be difficult, it will nevertheless be a worthwhile endeavor. He will not only begin his life anew, but will also fulfil the numen divum (2.786) or “divine will.”

While many would consider Creusa to be a minor character of the epic, I feel that she is the catalyst for the journey ahead. She needs to die so that Aeneas can fulfill his preordained destiny, and he must be forced to confront her shade so that he knows unequivocally that he has her blessing to move on without her, that he can go on knowing that she is not in pain, but in the company of the divine. She is able to put him at peace, a beloved voice telling him that perils await, but joy is inevitable. It is only through her encouragement that he is able to leave his burning city to pursue the numen divum.


Briggs, Ward W. “Eurydice, Venus, and Creusa: A Note on Structure in Vergil.” Vergilius 25 (1979): 43–45.

Casali, Sergio. “Creusa.” In Richard Thomas and Jan M. Ziolkowski, eds., The Vergil Encyclopedia, 3 vols. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 312–13.

Grillo, Luca. “Leaving Troy and Creusa: Reflections on Aeneas’ Flight.” Classical Journal 106 (2010): 43–68.

Jones, Peter. Reading Vergil: Aeneid I and II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Khan, H. Akbar. “Exile and the Kingdom: Creusa’s Revelations and Aeneas’ Departure from Troy.” Latomus 60 (2001): 906–15.

Podcast: Misenus the Trumpeter (Aeneid 6.156-164)

William Boyes discusses the character of Misenus in Vergil’s Aeneid.

Photo of Cape Misenum
Capo Miseno (source: it.wikipedia.org)



Most people aim to leave a mark on this world before they leave it, whether in the form of having children, or in their career, or contribution to some social movement. But very few can hope for an entire location named after us post mortem. We count among these famous few some of the most influential and important members of society to date: George Washington, Saint Francis, Milton Hershey. Nowadays you have to be a titan of industry, lead a revolution, or effect major social change to get your own hill or street. But Vergil’s Italy, all you had to do it seemed was just die near Aeneas.

The Aeneid succeeds on its own terms as a beautifully composed epic in Latin, but it also provides explanations for the state of many things in the Roman world.  Vergil knits together local myths and historical accounts in a wat that gives parts the Italian peninsula itself a kind of legendary gravity. For example, Aeneas’s helmsman Palinurus and his nurse Caieta both give names to capes and peninsulas in Italy.

One such venerated companion of Aeneas was his trumpeter Misenus, whose name adorns a cape in Italy to this day, now Capo Miseno. The Sibyl first tells Aeneas of Misenus’s death, and then Aeneas finds and buries his body in order to enter the underworld. The most interesting part of this section of about 100 lines to me was the section describing Misenus in life, and detailing the circumstances of Aeneas finding his body and then his death:

Aenēās maestō dēfīxus lūmina vultū
ingreditur linquēns antrum, caecōsque volūtat
ēventūs animō sēcum. Cui fīdus Achātēs
it comes et paribus cūrīs vēstīgia fīgit.
Multa inter sēsē variō sermōne serēbant,          160
quem socium exanimum vātēs, quod corpus humandum
dīceret. Atque illī Mīsēnum in lītore siccō,
ut vēnēre, vident indignā morte perēmptum,
Mīsēnum Aeolidēn, quō nōn praestantior alter
aere ciēre virōs Mārtemque accendere cantū.      165
Hectoris hic magnī fuerat comes, Hectora circum
et lituō pugnās īnsignis obībat et hastā.
postquam illum vītā victor spoliāvit Achillēs,
Dardaniō Aenēae sēsē fortissimus hērōs
addiderat socium, nōn īnferiōra secūtus.        170
Sed tum, forte cavā dum personat aequora conchā,
dēmēns, et cantū vocat in certāmina dīvōs,
aemulus exceptum Trītōn, sī crēdere dignum est,
inter saxa virum spūmōsā immerserat undā.

 My translation of this passage is as follows:

Leaving the cavern, Aeneas walked with his eyes cast downward, his face sorrowful, pondering these strange dark events in his mind. Trusty Achates went with him as a comrade and locked with his captain both his step and his thought. They spoke about many different topics among themselves, what dead comrade did the princess mean? Whose body was left to be buried? When they came to the beach, they saw Misenus on the dry sand, dead, cutoff by a death all undeserved. Misenus, son of Aeolus, than whom no one was more outstanding at rousing men and in igniting the war god with his bronze trumpet. He had been the companion of great Hector. Around Hector Misenus met battles. He was distinguished with both war-horn and spear. After victorious Achilles stripped Hector of life, the very brave hero had come into the company of Dardanian Aeneas, then following a leader no worse than he had before. But then, while he happened to be playing his conch, making the seas resound loudly with his music- the fool- he called the gods into competition with his song and, if the story is to be believed, envious Triton snatched him up and drowned the man in the frothy waves among the rocks.

This passage is packed with information about Misenus, filling in his backstory from before the Trojan War up until his death. We learn he is a tested fighter, but he is mostly a hype guy for great heroes like Hector and Aeneas, and he is great because he himself is in the company of great men. This point is emphasized by the repetition of Hector’s name, in addition to the names of other great men like Achilles and Aeneas, in line 166. Misenus was described as “very brave” and “outstanding at rousing men” to war—then later a close companion of Aeneas. Vergil also makes a point to paint the image of Misenus with great liveliness and youth, to make his death that much more tragic. Vergil’s main objective throughout the Aeneid, but especially in the little vignettes he sprinkles throughout the work, is to throw the reader into the emotional turmoil his own characters feel on their journey. In a different part of the Aeneid, Vergil subjects us to Priam’s gruesome and tragic death at the hands of Neoptolemus. This scene is particularly emotional because it involves old Priam being ripped from his family, still trembling under the weight of his old armor, and run through with a sword in a pool of his young son’s own blood. Compare these episodes also to Aeneas’s painful and protracted relational fight with Dido about leaving Carthage. Dido begs and pleads and clings to Aeneas hard as a lover should, but to no avail. She kills herself shortly after Aeneas leaves, in pain so great that nothing but death could relieve her. Each anecdote achieves the same end, in different ways: Vergil brings us a difficult and complex human experience we all find ourselves relating to in some way or another. The gods, as the ultimate arbiters of our fates, are seen as cruel and even shallow by the text—it seems completely unnecessary for a powerful sea god like Triton to snuff out a young, vibrant soul such as Misenus’s, just for playing a conch shell. The emphasis in this element is on the randomness of life’s misery. His name is repeated at lines 162, then 164 to heighten the emotional effect on Aeneas and Achates—and the reader. This technique is common in poetry, as in the line from Robert Frost: “Possessing what we were still unpossessed by, Possessed by what we now no more Possessed” (from “The Gift Outright”).

Misenus’s value and purity in the world remind the reader of the cruelty the fates seem to spin for each of us, and even can be framed in reference to the sacrifices made in war or any great undertaking. One scholar (McKay) suggests that Misenus, along with the unfortunate helmsman Palinurus, are consumed by the “destiny that embraces Aeneas and Ascanius” as “quasi-sacrificial victims.” To achieve anything so great as the Roman Empire, sacrifices such as Misenus dying must be made. Another scholar (Dinter) likens Misenus to old Trojan glory lost and soon to be re-established. Misenus helps to bridge two continents, going from being very much involved with the old Trojan way, as Hector’s loyal trumpeter, to dying and being buried on Italian soil. He, like the Trojan identity he represents, must be disintegrated and sown into Italian ground, for Roman crop to arise. He even holds a place in both Phrygian myth and Roman history.

Minor Heroes like Misenus exist in literature to enhance and move the stories of greater epic heroes like Aeneas, even if that means their sacrifice. However, I wonder whether the ancients meant to comment on the irrelevance or auxiliary nature of some people’s lives? Do the fates require sacrifice of some to ensure the glory of others, even now? Has destiny confined many of us to live only in the shadows of great men and women? Vergil doesn’t seem to give us an optimistic answer. This hard truth would certainly fit with his lessons in life’s many hardships.


Dinter, M. “Epic and Epigram: Minor Heroes in Vergil’s Aeneid.” Classical Quarterly 55 (2005): 153–169.

McKay, A. G. “Vergilian Heroes and Toponymy. Palinurus and Misenus.” In H.D. Evjen, ed., Mnemai. Classical studies in memory of Karl K. Hulley (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1984), 121–137.

Hollywood and History: Hannibal (1959)

by Seth Levin

The movie Hannibal (1959) is a dramatic recreation of the Second Punic War, fought between the two great empires of Rome and Carthage. As the movie begins, viewers are thrown into the midst of Hannibal’s (Victor Mature) Carthaginian army—consisting of soldiers, pack animals, horses, and deadly war elephants—crossing of the Alps, an immense feat,. This spectacle is not downplayed, as Hannibal’s troops are shown marching up steep mountain cliffs, trying to maintain control of their horses and elephants while hindered by the freezing cold. Throughout the entire crossing, Hannibal’s officers relentlessly order the soldiers to “keep marching,” even though some have fallen off the mountain, or been pushed by the horses and elephants. Eventually, Hannibal reaches the summit of the mountain; Maharbal (Franco Silva), Hannibal’s cavalry commander, exclaims “Hannibal! The rations are all gone! The men are freezing to death” and demands that Hannibal “relieve me of my command” (14:50). After their conversation, Hannibal gets word that a barbarian leader and his men, who control the opposite side of the Alps “are surrendering” and that their leader Rutarius (Bud Spencer) “has come down to negotiate” (15:43). Hannibal and Rutarius have a brief conversation in which they make a truce that allows Hannibal to descend the Alps into Italy, while Rutarius is guaranteed supremacy over the region where his tribe lives.

After Hannibal descends out of the Alps, he sets up camp near the Trebia. Here, Mago (Mirko Ellis), one of Hannibal’s brothers, brings a Roman slave into Hannibal’s tent who has information about an important hostage. At first, Hannibal is uninterested, and decides to send him away. Then, the slave urgently exclaims, “I threw myself at the mercy of the all-powerful Hannibal, liberator of the oppressed” and tells Hannibal that the hostage is Sylvia (Rita Gam) “the niece of Fabius Maximus” (Gabriele Ferzetti) (25:23). After the slave discusses the location of Sylvia, Hannibal ambushes her and Quintilius (Terence Hill), who is her childhood friend, bodyguard, and son of Fabius Maximus. During the ambush, Sylvia goes into a cave to hide from Hannibal. Once Hannibal finds her, Sylvia, not knowing who he is, pleads to “let me and the boy go free” and that if he should “my uncle would pay you very well for delivering us from Hannibal; he could even appoint you officer in one of our legions” (28:35). Not falling for the bribe, Hannibal escorts both of them back to his camp.
Back at his camp, Hannibal locks Quintilius in a cage and invites Sylvia to join him in a tour of his camp, as he was stricken by her beauty when he first caught a glimpse of her. While escorting her around his camp, he stops at a vantage point where they can see all of his ally reinforcements and afterwards, Hannibal shows her his elephants, which leaves Sylvia awestruck. At the end of their tour, Hannibal tells Sylvia that “I want you to take a message to your uncle. Tell him that Hannibal seeks peace” (33:48). Sylvia is skeptical towards Hannibal’s notion of peace, but Hannibal reassures her that “The Carthaginians always wanted peace” (34:07). The next morning, he frees Sylvia and Quintilius and allows them to travel back to Rome.

Once Sylvia and Quintilius make it back to Rome, Fabius Maximus assures her that she misunderstood Hannibal’s claims for peace, and that it was not peace which led Hannibal to release Sylvia, but his intentions of intimidating Rome. Fabius then goes to the Senate and devises a plan to “tire him, wear him down with skirmishes. Ambush his vanguards. Each day, each hour that passes is another arrow for our bows!” (38:50). The Senate laughs at his proposal and instead decides to attack Hannibal head-on at the Trebia, a plan devised by an unamed Roman senator played by Renzo Cesana.

After the Senate discussion, the movie quickly shifts towards the Battle of the Trebia, where the Roman army first sees Hannibal’s mighty elephants. During the battle, Roman soldiers are trampled by the elephants and some are even picked up by the elephant’s trunks and thrown around the battlefield. In the closing stages of the battle, a Roman centurion shouts “we can’t hurt these animals! Fall back men!” (40:55). At the river, the Carthaginian army successfully defends their camp against the Romans who are attempting to sail across on makeshift rafts. The Trebia scene however, is mostly dedicated to showing off the might of Hannibal’s elephants, and is unusually short for being the first major battle in the Second Punic War. Following this victory, Hannibal begins to lose sight in his right eye.

Soon after the battle, Fabius discovers that Flaminius has been replaced as commander. Outraged by this decision, Fabius declares that he will “no longer support with my presence” the decisions the Senate makes (44:51). Fabius leaves the Senate. Meanwhile, Sylvia goes back to Hannibal to try to negotiate peace. However, when she arrives at Hannibal’s camp, she discovers that Hannibal does not want to make peace with the Rome, leading her to ask him “Why did you send for me now?” Hannibal replies “Because I wanted to see you, and I hoped you wanted to see me” (51:36). Quintilius then arrives with a plethora of men and begins to attack Hannibal and some of his horsemen. Eventually, after a lackluster and unrealistic battle scene, Hannibal spares Quintilius and Sylvia yet again and sends them back to Rome.

Once they arrive in Rome, Fabius is appalled that Sylvia went back to see Hannibal and betrayed Rome; he sentences her to live out her years in confinement in the Temple of Vesta. The day before her confinement is to begin, Sylvia’s maid brings her good news that “Hannibal has found out; he loves you Sylvia! Hannibal wants you to come to him! He is waiting for you, he loves you!” (57:30). Sylvia flees from Rome, planning to defect to the Carthaginian side for the rest of her days. Meanwhile, the Senate holds a meeting and elects Varro (Andrea Aureli) and Aemilius (Andrea Fantasia) as consuls.

Before the Battle of Cannae, Maharbal plans to murder Sylvia because he believes “that girl will be the ruin of us” (59:05). Hasdrubal tries to placate Maharbal by telling him “there is no woman alive who can influence Hannibal.” But Maharbal replies, “No? Then explain to me why he uses every possible reason to avoid combat?” (1:01:20). In an act of mutiny, Maharbal leaves the gates of the elephant corral open, allowing them to run wild inside the camp. Hannibal bravely saves Sylvia from the elephants and soon after discovers that Maharbal was behind the plot. As a result, Hannibal battles Maharbal until Maharbal eventually loses due to Hannibal’s skill in combat. Hannibal lets him live, stating that “if I didn’t need you I’d…[kill you]” (1:05:40).

After Maharbal’s failed mutiny, the Roman army begins to advance on Hannibal’s encampment near Cannae. Hannibal’s strategy is to deceive the Romans in order to surround them in a pincer formation. He plans to send a small infantry unit out into the field and once they see the Roman army, pretend to retreat, thus drawing the Romans closer to the Carthaginian camp. Then, Hannibal plans for two cavalry units to flank the Roman army from behind, trapping the Romans on all sides. Varro and Aemilius argue about the best way to attack the Carthaginians. Aemilius rides up to Varro and exclaims, “Varro please listen to me! It is madness to place the infantry so close to the river. The cavalry has no room to maneuver. You may need their support in an emergency.” Varro confidently replies “It’s my turn today understand me? I am in command obey my orders” (1:10:00). Thus, the Roman army proceeds in compliance with Varro’s commands.

Once the battle commences, a Roman cavalry force ambushes the small Carthaginian infantry unit. The infantry retreats according to plan and the Roman army pursues them, believing that the Carthaginians are weak. Hannibal seeing his plan succeeding, slyly states “like rats in a trap” (1:13:35). The fighting begins and the Roman army is soon completely overwhelmed by the Hannibal’s, due to Varro’s faulty battle maneuver. The Roman army signals retreat, but Hannibal orders that “not a single Roman is to leave Cannae” (1:20:50). The Romans are obliterated and while the Carthaginians are surveying the disastrous battlefield, Hannibal finds Sylvia holding a dead Quintilius in her arms.

Back in Rome, realizing their strategy for dealing with Hannibal is ineffective, the Roman Senate appoints Fabius Maximus as proconsul, while bringing him Quintilius’ sword. Looking at the sword, Fabius sternly swears to the senators, “Rome will never submit to a foreign invader. In the words of Hannibal himself when he crossed the Alps, ‘conquer or die’” (1:24:08). The scene then shifts back to Hannibal, who is enjoying a lavish victory feast in Capua, topped off by an arena full of gladiators and games. The festivities are cut short though when Hannibal discovers that Maharbal, who he sent to Carthage to obtain more troops, “has just arrived and is in your tent” (1:27:40). Hannibal and Sylvia rush back to his tent, only to find Maharbal with Hannibal’s wife Danila (Milly Vitale), and son. Feeling completely betrayed and heartbroken, Sylvia steals a horse and miserably departs from the camp. Hannibal angrily demands why Maharbal brought no troops, to which Maharbal replies, “if you had followed my advice, Rome would have been destroyed, and Carthage would not have denied you your request” (1:29:49). Hannibal then swiftly grabs a horse and rushes to catch up with Sylvia.

Hannibal catches up to Sylvia, and during their conversation, a Roman cavalry unit surprises them, and plans to attack them. Seeing that the men are Roman, and still grieving, Sylvia shouts “Stop! Wait! Take me with you I’m Roman!” (1:32:27). Sylvia returns to Rome with cavalry unit and Hannibal never sees Sylvia again. Hannibal goes back to his tent, where he demands that Danila take her son back to Carthage so that he will never “know the meaning of the words hate and revenge” (1:33:49). While Hannibal is ordering Danila to do this, they hear a loud commotion outside the tent. Hannibal soon finds Hasdrubal’s head in his camp. Hannibal had sent him to Italy to wage war and is informed by Mago that a Roman rider threw the head into one of their outposts. Hannibal and his son embrace and mournfully walk away from the atrocity.

In the final scene of the film, Fabius Maximus has arranged for Sylvia to be buried alive for deserting to the Carthaginians. He goes to her cage before the public execution and gives her a vial of poison, showing some mercy towards his niece. While she is being buried, he unhappily looks down at the ring which Hannibal gave her and the scene fades to Hannibal holding the exact same ring. Then, learning that the Romans are attacking his camp, Hannibal prepares for battle. In the final shot of the movie, Hannibal’s austere face is superimposed on the screen with fire and dead Roman soldiers screaming “March!” over and over again, similar to the beginning of the movie on the Alps. However, instead of being merciful, Hannibal is out for revenge (1:39:00).

The main ancient Roman historian who writes about Hannibal and the Second Punic War is Titus Livius (Livy). Livy however, does not write solely on Hannibal and the Second Punic War in his work, but instead focuses more on a collective number of people and events. In his Ab Urbe Condita, Livy wrote not only about the Hannibalic Wars, he also wrote 142 books on the complete history of Rome, ending with the reign of Emperor Augustus. Written around 25 BC using earlier historical texts as assistance, only around 25% of the original Ab Urbe Condita remains. The history of the Hannibalic Wars is told in books 21-30.

Livy writes about the Hannibalic Wars in order to “provide an account of the most momentous war ever fought” (21.1). Therefore, Livy’s main goals are to provide a detailed and accurate account of the events and battles throughout the war, while oscillating between the forces of Hannibal and the senators and consuls of Rome. Because Livy wants to memorialize the Hannibalic Wars, he writes in great detail about every minute topic relevant to the war. During his account of the war, Livy lists the number of soldiers fighting in each battle, including each force’s respective nativity, as well as the many generals on both sides and the men of notable status who were slain during battle. Livy even devotes a whole paragraph during his retelling of the Battle of Cannae to describing what each auxiliary unit in the Carthaginian army carried into battle (22.46). Livy also discusses with great care events going on in Rome simultaneous to the war, and incorporates dialogue among the Roman Senators.

Even though Livy is Roman, he does not falsify Hannibal’s character and perceive him as a barbarian but instead, gives him praise where it is due. For example, while describing the events before the Battle of Trebia, in which Hannibal is in desperate need of supplies, Livy tells how the town of Clastidium held a Roman stockpile of wheat. After capturing the town, Livy states that it “became the granary of the Carthaginians while they remained at the Trebia. So that Hannibal could have a reputation for clemency established right at the start, no harsh treatment was meted to the prisoners from the surrendered garrison” (21.48). Furthermore, Livy is sure to make mention of Hannibal’s allies, in order to show that Hannibal was not only a commander, but a diplomat as well. Livy contributes a large portion of Hannibal’s victories to his alliets, listing all the allied troops who helped turn the tide of the battle. During the initial stages of the Battle of Trebia, Livy states that “when the Numidians struck, Sempronius first led out all of his cavalry” (21.54). Also, Livy uses Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps to credit Hannibal’s diplomacy, as his Gallic auxiliaries “managed to insinuate themselves into conversations with the local mountain men, from whom they differed little in language and customs. Through them Hannibal gained further information that the pass was guarded only by day, and at night all the men slipped away to their own homes” (21.32). Livy understands that Hannibal was a visionary who accomplished great feats in a foreign land, but his ubiquitous mention of Hannibal’s allies helps the reader establish Hannibal as not only a military victor, but as a diplomatic one as well. Without his many foreign allies, Hannibal would have had a much harder time conducting operations in Italy.

There are many historical inaccuracies in the movie. The most noteworthy inaccuracy has to be Hannibal’s perceived friendliness towards the Romans, shown through the fictional character Sylvia. In book 21 of his work, Livy tells the story of how Hannibal’s father Hamilcar “brought Hannibal to the altar and there made him swear to make him himself an enemy of the Roman people at the earliest possible opportunity” (21.1). It is, therefore, impossible to believe that Hannibal would ever talk of peace, as well as show passion towards Sylvia, who is a Roman. It is also unlikely that Hannibal would ever allow the son and niece of Fabius to return to Rome; it is more likely he would use them as leverage to gain information about Rome’s military operations. Also, no character resembling Sylvia is ever mentioned in Livy.   Her character was invented solely to function as a love interest and add a more interesting facet to the plot; without Sylvia, the movie would have been a war film with only battles and war preparations contributing to the plot. Also invented, is Hannibal’s romantic personality. In one scene in the movie, Hannibal gives Sylvia a ring so that she could pass into Hannibal’s camp without being harmed. Hannibal tells her that “I wanted to see you, and I hoped you wanted to see me” and then proceeds to kiss her (51:36). Later in the film, Sylvia discovers in Rome that “Hannibal wants you to come to him! He is waiting for you, he loves you!” (57:30). Towards the end of the movie, Hannibal is visited by his wife Danila, another fictional character who only serves to heighten the sexual tension between Hannibal and Sylvia. With these two female characters, the directors Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia and Edgar G. Ulmer completely falsify Hannibal’s romantic and familial entanglements.

After Sylvia’s execution, Hannibal goes into a fury.

Hannibal’s perceived felicity in the film is surely fictitious. In the movie, Hannibal is always smiling and dedicates part of his days towards leisure, particularly seen through his interactions with Sylvia. Hannibal even celebrates his victory at Cannae by hosting a huge luxurious party. Livy writes however that, “his eating and drinking depended on the requirements of nature, not pleasure,” and “the time which he had left from discharging his duties was given to sleep, and it was not brought on by a soft bed or silence” but, “the man’s great virtues were matched by his enormous vices: pitiless cruelty, a treachery worse than Punic, no regard for the truth, and no integrity” (21.4). The Hannibal presented in the last remaining minutes of the movie more accurately matches the one whom Livy writes about. The reason why the movie portrays Hannibal in this way is because it helps enhance his romance with Sylvia. If Hannibal was always sternly focusing on his campaign in the movie, the romance between he and Sylvia would be less believable, as his personality would be more off-putting. However, as stated in Livy, it is extremely unlikely that Hannibal would ever submit himself towards leisure and luxury during his campaigns in Europe.

Like  Sylvia, Fabius’ son Quintilius is another made-up character in the movie. Although Fabius did in fact have a son, his name was also Fabius Maximus and Livy writes that Fabius’ son, many years after the Battle of Cannae, was elected to the consulship (24.43). In the movie on the other hand, Quintilius is killed during the Battle of Cannae. Quintilius dies in the movie because it cements the ineffectiveness of the Romans during the initial battles of the Second Punic War. It also underscores that Fabius’ strategy of delay (cunctatio) was the correct way to deal with Hannibal. Since Quintilius and Sylvia were good friends, his death causes Sylvia’s to question her romance and desertion to Hannibal, adding another dynamic to the romantic plotline.

The directors vividly capture the daunting task of crossing the Alps

Despite these inaccuracies, the directors do accurately display Hannibal’s diplomacy and usefulness of his allies. In the beginning of the film when Hannibal is crossing the Alps, Rutarius asks Hannibal for the “supremacy of my tribe over all the other tribes in the valley” (16:32). Hannibal grants Rutarius his hegemony and forms an alliance with him, highlighting his unwavering focus on diplomacy. While escorting Sylvia through his encampment, Hannibal makes note of his allies, “my Numidians. And over here is my Libyan cavalry. And over here on my far right are my Spaniards, the greatest horsemen on the continent. And up here are my Carthaginians, the main core of my strength” (31:57). As mentioned in Livy, Hannibal utilizes these auxiliary contingents to secure important military victories for the Carthaginian army. Therefore, the directors understand that Hannibal promoted diplomacy, and allied with many peoples in his quest to invade Rome.

In some respects, the movie correctly depicts the difficulty of crossing the Alps. During the crossing, both in the movie and in Livy, Hannibal’s men “could not keep from falling and, even after losing their balance only slightly, they could not, once in difficulties, keep their footing, so that they would fall over each other, and the pack animals would fall on the men” (21.35). Surprisingly, the movie even shows the difficulties of marching the elephants through the narrow passes of the Alps, as the Carthaginians had melt snow and dig through rock in order to form a wide enough passage for the huge beasts (21.37). Even though the movie correctly displays the harsh natural terrain Hannibal encountered during his time crossing the Alps, it makes no mention of the many Alpine tribes which Livy claims “made predatory raids on the head or the rear of the column” (21.35). I believe that the movie strays away from this facet of Hannibal’s march in order to mold him into a more fearful central hero, common amongst   sword-and-sandals movies. Thus, during his march in the film, Hannibal and his army are characterized as an unstoppable force that even the great armies of Rome will have difficulty handling.

There is also a small amount of historical accuracy during the battle scenes in the movie. The directors do a good job at depicting the battle plans of Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae, at which Livy states Hannibal “deployed his battle line, and provoked his enemy with sudden charges from his Numidian troops” (22.44). At the Battle of the Trebia, the film highlights the importance and ferocity of Hannibal’s war elephants, which were a constant threat during the actual battle in 218 BC. The film over-dramatizes their usefulness, though, and attributes to them a large portion of the victory at the Trebia. In actuality it was Hannibal’s auxiliary forces, especially the Numidians who were “to cross the River Trebia, ride up to the gates of the enemy and entice him out to battle by hurling spears” who contributed the most to that victory (21.54). The over-dramatization of these elephants makes Hannibal, as stated before, a more terrifying central character.

The film does an excellent job depicting the constant feud between the two consuls Varro and Aemilius Paulus before the Battle of Cannae. As mentioned in Livy, Varro and Paulus would oscillate each day as the supreme commander of the army, and have endless arguments concerning tactics. Identical to Livy’s description, the movie shows Varro and his followers are “angry and eager to fight” while Paulus “would choose safety over impetuous plans” (22.44, 22.38). Both in the film and in Livy’s work, Varro becomes war-crazed and “without conferring with his colleague in any way, he put up the signal, and led his troops over the river in battle order” (22.45). Although the directors stray away from historical accuracy in their creation of Sylvia and Quintilius, they do a good job accurately depicting Varro and Aemilius, as well as Hannibal’s battle tactics.

Maharbal’s disagreement with Hannibal’s strategy is also historically accurate. After winning Cannae, Livy states that Maharbal wanted to “go ahead with the cavalry – so the Romans will know of our arrival before they are aware of our coming.” However, Hannibal “declared that, while he appreciated Maharbal’s enthusiasm, he would need time to consider his suggestion.” In response to this, Maharbal furiously responds, “you do not know how to use victory!” (22.51). In the movie, Maharbal orders Mago to “explain to me why he [Hannibal] uses every possible reason to avoid combat?” after their victory at Trebia (1:01:20). Maharbal hypothesizes that “If you [Hannibal] had followed my advice, Rome would have been destroyed, and Carthage would not have denied you your request [for more soldiers]” (1:29:49). Unlike Hannibal’s unrealistic personality, Maharbal’s depiction in the movie closely represents his personality in Livy.

Overall, Livy is less concerned with glorifying the Roman name and is more interested in preserving the fascinating history of Rome as accurately and impartially as possible. Even though Livy covers more than 700 years of Rome’s history, he is exceptionally thorough. He has an extreme attention for detail and describes the number of troops each side had, who was in command, and what auxiliary units were utilized particularly well. Despite being a Roman, he is not afraid to praise the admirable qualities of the Carthaginians, or criticize the Romans for their reprehensible ones. In comparison, the directors of Hannibal praise Hannibal for being a great military commander with tons of ambition. However, through the fictional character Sylvia, the movie is more concerned about generating a “war-romance” film in order to retain the attention of the audience. Because of this, the “action scenes can be desultory” and brief, as more attention is given towards Hannibal and Sylvia’s unlikely romance (Hoberman).

Hannibal was directed by the Italian directors Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia and Edgar G. Ulmer and was released in 1959 in Italian under the name Annibale. The movie was not released in the United States until a year later and was not released on DVD until 2004. Funded by Warner Brothers Studios, the movie was shot at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, Italy. Cinecitta studios was founded by Benito Mussolini to promote Italy and fascist ideals through cinema. After the Second World War, Cinecitta Studios was used by many American movie companies because of how cheap it was to film there, the same reason why Warner Brothers chose to use the site. Many other sword-and-sandals movies were also made in Cinecitta Studios besides Hannibal, including Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur (“History of Cinecittà.”). The movie had an estimated four-million-dollar budget (IMDb), which was used to cast “over 4,000 foot-soldiers, 1,500 horsemen, 45 elephants and a vast assortment of war machines” in the Battle of Cannae alone (back of DVD box). Because this movie was filmed in the late 1950s, there were no special effects or use of computer-generated imagery. All of the elephants, horses, and soldiers were present during the shooting of the film and all the battle scenes were shot without special effects. This is the main reason why there are very few on-screen deaths and blood during these scenes.

Battle scenes were poorly acted and unrealistic.

Victor Mature and Rita Gam, Hannibal and Sylvia respectively, were both American actors and are the two biggest stars of the film. They both recorded their lines in English, as opposed to the other members of the cast, who spoke in Italian. For the English version of the film, all the Italian actors’ lines were dubbed over in English. I believe that the directors of the movie cast Mature and Gam in order to gain more publicity with the larger American audience and generate a larger box-office. However, I personally did not enjoy the acting in this film mainly because the dialogue between the characters felt unrealistic, thus bringing down the plausibility of each character. I also believe that the movie’s inaccuracies, primarily Hannibal and Sylvia’s romance, further exacerbated the weakness of the acting. Because I have prior knowledge of the Second Punic War and have read for this project many sections of Livy’s account, I cringed at most of the scenes in the movie because I know that they simply never happened. A review of the film by Variety Movie Reviews said that, “director Edgar G. Ulmer has not accomplished battle sequences and bloodshed very smoothly or persuasively.” I completely agree with this review, as the battle sequences in this film were extremely dull and implausible. Soldiers were able to flee enemies without any pursuit, sword fights were between two men haphazardly swinging their swords at each other with no intention to kill, there were hardly any on screen deaths, and finally, both of the battle scenes were short (Appendix 3). To put it concisely, “the film gets off to an interesting start in scenes illustrating the difficult and costly crossing of the snowy Alps by Hannibal’s army, but slows down to an elephant’s pace in the romantic passages at the heart of the picture” (Variety).

Hannibal is categorized under the sword-and-sandals, or peplum, genre. This genre consists of movies that incorporate traditional muscleman films into a historically classical setting. The main sword-and-sandals genre primarily focuses on a hero discovering a wrong and setting out to fix it, culminating in a nice, happy ending. However, Hannibal is very different from this style of   sword-and-sandals, and falls into the distinct category of sword-and-sandals movies that mainly focus on plot and character development rather than action sequences, similar to the movie Messalina (Young). I think the movie strays away from action sequences because an hour and a half of fighting and military tactics would only draw in a very specific audience, as the movie would feel more like a documentary than a movie. Without the dialogue and character development, the characters of the movie would be dull and lifeless and the audience would in return feel no emotional attachment for any of the characters. The romance aspect in the film allows the audience to develop emotions for both the Carthaginians and the Romans. However, as mentioned earlier, I believe that the movie is ineffective at achieving these goals due to how unrealistic the plot seemed to be. The movie strays away from the traditional sword-and-sandals genre again in the sense that it neglects a main sword-and-sandals theme of fantasy, usually satisfied by the introduction of mythological heroes or gods. However, Hannibal does share themes with the traditional sword-and-sandals style, mainly a central hero (Hannibal) who fights against a villain (Fabius Maximus and Rome). Also, the movie provides a love interest (Sylvia) for the hero, which is common amongst many sword-and-sandals movies.

Because it is predominantly a romance film, the main theme of the movie is that love knows no bounds. Although Hannibal is constantly at war with Rome and Fabius Maximus, Sylvia’s uncle, he nevertheless loves Sylvia and ignores her Roman nationality. Sylvia even abandons Rome and her uncle altogether in order to spend her time with Hannibal. Furthermore, Sylvia stays with Hannibal after the Battle of Cannae after she discovers Quintilius, her lifelong friend, was killed by Hannibal’s army. The scene that does the best job broadcasting this theme is when Hannibal duels Maharbal in a swordfight due to Maharbal’s attempt to kill Sylvia. Even though Maharbal is Hannibal’s cavalry commander and a crucial part of the Carthaginian army, Hannibal puts that all aside when his romance with Sylvia is at stake (59:00-106:00). As mentioned previously, Hannibal even considers peace with Rome due to his infatuation with Sylvia. At the end of the movie, when Hannibal discovers that Sylvia was executed by Fabius, he commands more vigorously and ruthlessly than ever before. As Maharbal states in the movie, Hannibal was controlled by his love for Sylvia (59:00). However, the love between Fabius and Sylvia also contributes to this theme. After Sylvia’s second visit with Hannibal, Fabius spares her from death, because of his love for her. Finally, after Sylvia defects from Hannibal’s camp following Cannae, Fabius, instead of keeping her alive throughout the entire length of her execution, shows mercy final time by giving her a vial of poison. Whether the relationship is between lovers or family members, love in this movie completely defies boundaries.

A smaller yet still present theme in the movie is that patience is the key to success. Throughout the movie, Fabius Maximus was ostracized and heckled because of his strategy to, “tire him, wear him down with skirmishes” (38:50). Fabius never pushed his agenda down the Senate’s throat and calmly waited for the senate to realize their mistakes in actively pursuing battle with Hannibal. However, after losing to Hannibal’s army at Trebia, Transimene, and Cannae, the Roman senate named Fabius proconsul, and gave him control over the Roman army and its operations. However, because the film is over-saturated with love and romance, this theme is rarely present.

A movie which we watched in class which was made around the same time as Hannibal and is also in the  sword-and-sandals genre is Spartacus (1960). Both of these movies are in the same subsection of the sword-and-sandals genre but in my opinion, Spartacus is more interesting than Hannibal because it still has a considerable amount of satisfying action sequences in addition to having a good amount of dialogue and plot development. In Hannibal, the romance between Hannibal and Sylvia is at the forefront, with the war being a secondary plotline in the movie. Because of this, the battle scenes in the movie are forced and unsatisfying. In Spartacus, the romance between Spartacus and Virinia is definitely in the background, as the main plotline of the movie focuses more on Spartacus’ revolt against Rome. Unlike Hannibal, Spartacus’s battle scenes were more realistic, as they were filmed outdoors instead of on sets inside a studio. The actors fighting in these battle scenes were much more convincing as well; they did not blindly swing swords at each other, but had some grace in their movements and actions. I also found Spartacus’ romance to be more convincing than Hannibal’s romance because Spartacus and Virinia were both oppressed slaves serving Rome instead of bitter enemies who in theory should hate each other. For these reasons, I was thoroughly intrigued during the entire runtime of Spartacus, but very bored while watching Hannibal, even though the Second Punic War is a subject that I am very interested in.

In my opinion, this film is very weak in its portrayal of Hannibal and the Second Punic War. The battle scenes were atrocious and the soldiers were unintentionally humorous as they blindly swung their swords at each other. If I was shown only these battle scenes without any context, I would think that the movie was a sword-and-sandals parody due to how unrealistic and terribly hysterical the fighting seemed to be. The romance between Hannibal and Sylvia seemed implausible and forced as Livy and other ancient historians note that Hannibal was dedicated to his campaign, had no time for personal luxuries, and would never love let alone mention peace to a Roman. Furthermore, the fictitious characters of Sylvia, Quintilius, and Danila made the movie seem less historically accurate and more fantastical. The only admirable strength in my view is the movie’s portrayal of Hannibal’s determination when crossing the Alps and his diplomacy. Other than those two traits, the movie completely alters Hannibal’s personality, for the worse. When I was initially assigned this paper, I was very excited to watch this movie and learn more about the Second Punic War and Hannibal. However, after watching the movie, I would strongly recommend not watching it because a good portion of it is made-up and the rare scenes that are historically accurate are just plain boring. Although it does a good job in the first twenty minutes depicting Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, the movie does a lackluster once showcasing Hannibal’s campaign in Italy.

(Header Image: Detail from fresco Hannibal Crossing the Alps. Attributed to Jacopo Ripanda, c. 1510. Palazzo del Campidoglio (Capitoline Museum), Rome. Photograph © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)


Hannibal. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. 1960. DVD.

Hannibal. IMDb. Accessed May 07, 2016.

History of Cinecittà.” Studios in Rome. Accessed May 07, 2016.

Hoberman, J. 2004. “Hannibal (Film).” Film Comment 40, no. 6: 78-79. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text, EBSCOhost. Accessed May 7, 2016.

Livy. Hannibal’s War Books 21-30. trans. Yardley, J. C. and Dexter Hoyos. Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2006.

Variety Staff. 1960. “Hannibal.” Variety Movie Reviews no. 1: 26. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed May 7, 2016).

Young, Timothy. “The Peplum.” Peplum Guide and Film Reviews at Mondo Esoterica. Accessed May 07, 2016.


Hollywood and History is an on-going series featuring the original work of students in the course Ancient Worlds on Film. Papers have been slightly edited for publication.

Hollywood and History: Druids (aka The Gaul, 2001)

by Tobin Bromberg

Synopsis of Druids

The film Druids, also known as The Gaul, opens in the year 60 BC, with the people of Gaul facing dire times. Turning to a religious ceremony in order to find a solution to the woes of the Gallic people, the Druids witness a shooting star. The arch-Druid Guttuart (Max von Sydow) proclaims this to be a sign that a new king shall soon come to Gaul, despite the fact that Gaul had long ago abandoned a monarchical government. The film cuts to the Avernian capital, Gergovia, where a young Vercingetorix (Assen Kukushev) shows one of his friends, the daughter of a Gallic chieftain, around the city. He boasts about the meaning of his name, literally translated as “king of great warriors”. He aspires to achieve the power that his name holds, saying that he will one day be the king of Gaul, and tells the girl that she will be his queen. Vercingetorix and Epona, eager to find out what important matters their elders are discussing, sneak into a cave where a meeting of Gallic chieftains is being held. Here, Vercingetorix’s father, Celtill (actor not named) presents to the chieftains the crown worn by the Gallic kings of old. As soon as he does this, two Roman spies disguised as Gauls shoot him in the back with an arrow. Vercingetorix flees from the scene, while Celtill’s brother, Gobanittio (actor not named), detains him. Vercingetorix then watches his uncle burn his father alive, and swears vengeance, saying, “I will kill you, Gobanittio” (00:11:30).

The film leaps forward many years, bringing us to a now adult Vercingetorix (Christopher Lambert). He has been educated by Druids, and still holds fast to the childhood promise he made to his uncle. He and Guttuart approach a road that the Romans are building, but Guttuart runs away when Julius Caesar (Klaus Maria Brandauer), accompanied by Roman legionaries, approaches. Caesar attempts to recruit Vercingetorix and the Avernes to help him invade Britain, offering the Gauls half the booty that they will capture. Caesar gives Vercingetorix a horse on which to ride back to Gergovia. Upon arriving, Vercingetorix acts on his promise from so many years ago and kills his uncle. He tells the people of Caesar’s offer, to which they react with great enthusiasm.

Vercingetorix presents a Roman soldier with a grisly offering to present to Caesar.
Vercingetorix presents a Roman soldier with a grisly offering to present to Caesar.

The scene shifts to Bibracte, where Caesar meets with various chieftains of Gaul to discuss the British expedition. Many of the chieftains agree with his plans, but Dumnorix (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) voices his doubts, saying he will not join the expedition. Caesar, displeased with Dumnorix’s dissent, takes his children hostage. In a private meeting with Caesar, Vercingetorix reunites with his childhood friend, Epona (Ines Sastre). Caesar shows them the crown of Gaul and offers to make Vercingetorix king, saying that the Gallic people could be better off united under a single leader. Vercingetorix refuses, claiming that destiny, and not man, must choose the king. Caesar receives word that Dumnorix has attacked a Roman outpost, and sends Vercingetorix to capture him. Vercingetorix tracks down Dumnorix, who tells him that the Romans were to blame for Celtill’s death. Immediately afterwards, two Roman soldiers assassinate Dumnorix. Vercingetorix chases after them, and kills one. He gives the remaining soldier Caesar’s horse as well as a severed arm of the dead soldier, and orders him to “bring back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give my tribute to him” (00:36:03-00:36:13), officially ending the alliance between the Avernians and the Romans. Caesar receives Vercingetorix’s gruesome gift and realizes that the Romans have “made [him] an enemy; and it would be much better to have him as a friend” (00:37:02). He proceeds to place a bounty on Vercingetorix’s head.

Vercingetorix heads back to Gergovia, where the Roman guards of the city tell him that he is banished due to Caesar’s decree. He turns away from the city without saying a word. Later that night, Vercingetorix and his supporters murder the Roman soldiers at Gergovia. Having been liberated from Roman rule, the Avernians rally around Vercingetorix; he proclaims that he will only become king if his people want it to be so, not if the Romans choose him for the position. His people give him nearly unanimous support, and he becomes the king of Gaul.

Vercingetorix wastes no time putting his newfound power to use, leading scorched-earth campaigns against Roman settlements and burning entire cities to the ground. Vercingetorix spares the city of Avaricum, though his decision to do so was not made without a significant internal conflict between what is right and what is necessary. Caesar, however, orders that all of the inhabitants of Avaricum be slaughtered, causing great pain to Vercingetorix. The Roman army arrives at Gergovia, along with their allies, the Eduens, ready to crush the Avernian resistance. The Avernians attempt psychological warfare, throwing chickens at the Roman soldiers and having their women flash them, hoping that confusion and lust will overpower the Romans’ senses, causing chaos on the battlefield and crippling the Roman army. As the Romans prepare for what seems to be an extremely lopsided battle, it is revealed that the Eduens are extremely upset with Caesar because of his order to massacre the people of Avaricum; they abruptly end their alliance with Rome, switching sides in the conflict.

Suddenly outnumbered, the Romans have no choice but to retreat. With victory secured, the chieftains of Gaul assemble and choose Vercingetorix to be the commander in chief of a united army of all of the tribes of Gaul on account of his obvious military genius. The Gauls now feeling that their people may survive the Roman onslaught with their customs unchanged, burn an effigy of Caesar. Overcome with joy, Vercingetorix makes Epona his queen.

Unbeknownst to the Gauls, while they were celebrating, Caesar traveled to the Rhine River, where he enlisted the help of the Teutons, fearsome warriors from what is now Germany. The next day, the Teutons ambush a group of Vercingetorix’s men while they are riding through the countryside on horseback. One of the horses returns to the Gauls carrying its dead rider, and Vercingetorix identifies the weapon that killed him as Teutonic. The Teutonic presence in Gaul distresses him greatly, as it demonstrates to him that the Romans will stop at nothing to conquer Gaul. That night, at Alesia, some of Vercingetorix’s men try to convince him to leave, as they have received word that Caesar will attack soon. However, he makes this situation into his own personal Rubicon, going so far as to quote Caesar, saying that Gaul does not need a huge battle but “now the die is already cast” (01:17:41). With this, Vercingetorix seals his fate, essentially saying that he will fight until the end to prevent the Romans from conquering Gaul.

The battle begins with the Romans laying siege Alesia, building a series of fortifications around the city. Within, Vercingetorix begins to resort to desperate measures, halving rations so that the Gauls are able to hold their ground longer than expected. He orders his troops to go out into Gaul and recruit as many men as possible into a relief army, but warns them not to attack, as he cannot risk losing any of the people who make up his inner circle. Problems continue to arise in the city, as the Gauls’ food supply drops so low that they are forced to release their horses. In desperation, Vercingetorix suggests sending out everybody who cannot fight, though Epona persuades him to let the children remain in the city.

Meanwhile, the Gauls outside the city experience significant difficulty trying to elect a general for their relief army, as people initially try to tamper with the election. When this problem is fixed, they still have difficulty choosing a general, as none of the candidates receive a majority of votes. Eventually the Gauls agree to have four generals of equal rank, The relief army finally arrives at Alesia, significantly delayed because of the infighting. Though Vercingetorix now has the numbers required to take defeat the Romans, he refuses to give to order the attack. In the Roman camp, Caesar tells his advisors that they will starve to death if the Gauls do not attack, stating that their campaign will end either with “triumph or death” (01:31:25). Caesar justifies putting his army at risk of starvation by saying that he has destiny on his side. Unable to wait any longer, the Gauls try to persuade Vercingetorix to attack; he gives in and agrees to lead the Gauls in battle, but not before making it known that they will most likely all be killed, saying, “we will become immortal” (01:36:17).

Vercingetorix lays down his arms.
Vercingetorix lays down his arms.

Prepared to defend their homeland or die trying, the Gauls rush forth from the walls of Alesia. However, the Romans’ superior military technology immediately becomes obvious, as they mow down Gauls with javelins and arrows before the front lines engage. Finally, Caesar gives the order to release the Teutonic cavalry. This spells doom for the Gauls, as the Teutones prove to be too much for them to handle. The Gauls retreat through a field littered with the innumerable bodies of their fallen comrades. Everyone left behind is slaughtered, including the women and children. The Gauls having been conquered, Vercingetorix gives up the throne. He rides to the Roman encampment where he lays down his arms and kneels at Caesar’s feet admitting defeat. As the film ends, Guttuart narrates what happened afterwards: Caesar is assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 B.C, while Vercingetorix had been executed 2 years earlier.

Ancient Background

Book 7 of Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico is the only ancient source dealing with the life of Vercingetorix. He tells the story with little emotion or extraneous detail, choosing to focus exclusively on the military actions of the Romans and the Gauls, rather than the underlying causes behind said actions. He shows Vercingetorix as an extraordinary military leader, able to use his ability to earn whatever position he desired. The Gauls are said to have fairly advanced military technology, mostly due to being “an extremely resourceful people” (Caesar, 7.22). Among their military technology were such things as ropes designed to entrap and steal Roman equipment and walls that were resistant to both fire and battering rams. When writing from a Gallic viewpoint, Caesar portrays the Romans as brutes; in one speech allegedly made by a chieftain to incite war Rome is said to be rife with “singular and nefarious cruelty” (Caesar, 7.77). Conversely, when writing from the Roman point of view the Aedui are deemed untrustworthy. They first “greatly terrified our men” (Caesar, 7.50), despite being brought in to help the Romans, and ultimately revolted against Roman rule.

During battle scenes, Caesar depicts the Romans as underdogs, citing the Gauls’ numbers, position and familiarity with the land as giving them numerous advantages. Despite doing this, he does not downplay the military strength of the Gauls, often referring to them as fierce warriors. Caesar does not rest on his laurels even when Vercingetorix is captured. Rather than praise himself, Caesar simply states, “Vercingetorix was handed over and his weapons were thrown down” (Caesar, 7.88).  With sentiments such as this, De Bello Gallico presents a clean, unembellished view of the events that transpired during the Gallic revolt.

Caesar provides a less detailed and positive view of Vercingetorix’s early life than the film. Druids suggests the death of Vercingetorix’s father was a Roman conspiracy in order to make the audience sympathize with him and his fight against Rome. In De Bello Gallico, Caesar does not indicate any connection between the Romans and the death of Celtillus; he claims that, “trying to gain a kingdom, Celtillus had been put to death by the state” (Caesar, 7.4). Vercingetorix’s motivation, according to Caesar, was not revenge but the expansion of his territory and the removal of Romans from Gaul. Caesar also contradicts the idea that the Gauls had long ago abandoned monarchy, stating that Celtillus “had held power over all of Gaul” (ibid.). This is one of the major differences between the film and the ancient sources. It is clear that Caesar’s portrayal stems from the fact that Vercingetorix was not seen as superior or inferior to any other barbarian chieftain. Because Vercingetorix holds no special status in Roman culture he is not romanticized or exaggerated in any way. The film and novel do agree on one point, however. Just as the film did, Caesar shows considerable admiration for Vercingetorix’s military ability, referring to him as “a young man whose abilities were second to none” (Caesar, 7.4).

While Druids portrays Vercingetorix as a kind and compassionate leader, Caesar portrays him as the opposite. De Bello Gallico depicts Vercingetorix as cruel, stating that for serious crimes, “he killed offenders with fire and all types of tortures” (Caesar, 7.4); for less serious infractions, “he sent offenders home without their ears or eyes” (Caesar, 7.4). Though Druids suggests that the Gauls joined Vercingetorix’s army for the greater good for their country, De Bello Gallico gives a more stark reason for their enlistment saying that many Gauls were compelled to join his army through fear of Vercingetorix’s reputation for cruelty and torture. Caesar views Vercingetorix’s methods of conscription as cruel and unusual, forcing every able-bodied man from every Gallic state to fight regardless of their other responsibilities. Caesar’s commentary also paints the Gauls as being less motivated by the desire for freedom than they are in Druids. Rather than rallying around Vercingetorix and forming an army of their own accord, the Gauls are forced to action on pain of torture, providing a starkly different view of Vercingetorix’s recruitment methods than what is shown in the film.

Caesar’s intent in writing his account of Vercingetorix’s rebellion is not to entertain the Roman people, nor is it to show the Romans as superior to the Gauls. His writing is simply meant to inform the populace back in Rome of the current state of affairs in Gaul. While Caesar does occasionally praise the Romans, he does not fail to acknowledge both the ingenuity and the tactical skill that the Gauls displayed in battle. Caesar’s language is extremely plain, meant only to inform people of the events that were happening in Gaul, nothing more and nothing less. Though Caesar’s writing is fairly neutral, it is meant to show the superiority of Romans over barbarians, depicting Caesar’s tactics and strategies as brilliant, spur of the moment ideas, thus pointing out Caesar’s own military excellence.

Making the Movie

Chris Parry, in his review of the film on efilmcritic.com, opens first by comparing Druids to a low budget remake of Braveheart set in Bulgaria. He then asks, “who knew they could make movies this bad?” (Parry 2002). This question, unfortunately, is one that must be asked while viewing Druids, which in addition to being both a critical and a commercial failure, is often said to be one of the worst French films of all time. The goal of the film was to provide a dramatization of Vercingetorix’s life, an endeavor at which the film fails. Druids is rife with historical inaccuracies, either due to lack of knowledge or accurate sources on the part of the writer/director, Jacques Dorfmann, an attempt to make Vercingetorix more sympathetic, or a combination of all three reasons.

The main creative force behind the film was Jacques Dorfmann, the director. He filmed in Bulgaria, roughly 1,300 miles from where the actual events depicted in the film would have taken place, though this is just the first in a cavalcade of historically inaccuracies seen throughout the entirety of the film. The script seems to be based loosely upon Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, though significant changes were made in order that Vercingetorix might appear more sympathetic. To begin with, in the film Vercingetorix’s father is not executed by the state, rather he is murdered in a Roman conspiracy. Furthermore, the Romans are cruel and brutish, concerned only with expanding their empire, while Caesar is extremely arrogant, finding delight in indulgence, and entirely devoid empathy. This is all a result of the traditional French view of Vercingetorix, which dates back to the Napoleonic era. Napoleon III especially admired Vercingetorix, and “used Vercingetorix to get across a powerful political message, which was: get behind me, and we will fight together against the invader” (Beardsley 2013). Napoleon even commissioned a statue of Vercingetorix, in the belief that he fought for independence in the same way that France was still fighting for it at that time. For this reason, Vercingetorix is a folk hero in French culture, revered for his dedication to his country. Dorfmann goes out of his way to avoid casting even the slightest shadow on Vercingetorix’s reputation, ignoring the harsh punishments alleged in De Bello Gallico, including torture and execution. Instead he passes these atrocities on to the Romans and Germans, both of whom the film depicts as marauding brutes intent on preventing Gallic freedom. Dorfmann’s Vercingetorix is kind, compassionate and dedicated,

Many of the actors cast in Druids are either virtually unknown or are not known for being in highly regarded movies. For example, the star of the film, Christopher Lambert, is perhaps best known for starring in the Highlander film series, which has always been a critical failure despite its cult following. His performance in Druids is devoid of the power that one would expect from Vercingetorix. Though the young Vercingetorix boasts that his name means “king of great warriors,” Lambert’s Vercingetorix never seems to assert himself. Rather, he allows the soldiers to pressure him into making rash decisions, most notably the Battle of Alesia. Had Vercingetorix refused to attack, the Romans would have starved to death; he chose to listen to his men, though, leading to the annihilation of the Gauls.

Perhaps the most famous actor in the movie is Max von Sydow, who previously appeared in critically acclaimed films such as The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and The Exorcist (1973), as well as playing Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the James Bond film Never Say Never Again (1983). He remains influential even today, having been cast in HBO’s extremely popular series Game of Thrones as the Three-eyed Raven, a powerful clairvoyant. His appearance in Druids as the arch-Druid Guttuart is almost painful to watch, as the character is limited to prophecies that are meant to sound deep and foreboding, but in actuality have little to no substance. In fact, his character is so bad, and appears so infrequently in the film, that Chris Parry of efilmcritic.com “wondered to [himself] if maybe [von Sydow] had died before the end of the shoot” (Parry, efilmcritic.com). Perhaps the strangest casting choice of all is Klaus Maria Brandauer as Julius Caesar, who is effectively the main villain of the film. He, like Max von Sydow, appeared in Never Say Never Again (1983) where he played Maximillian Largo, the main villain. In that film, Roger Ebert thought Brandauer was “a wonderful actor, and he chooses not to play the villain as a cliché. Instead, he brings a certain poignancy and charm to Largo” (Ebert 1983). This high praise from one of the most well-known film critics of all time offers definitive proof that he is able to play a villain role well; in Druids, however, he has no real motivation for wanting to conquer Gaul other than simply being able to do so. Furthermore, the choice of a German actor turns Caesar into a German, which is blatantly historically inaccurate. Dorfmann may have had an ulterior motive behind choosing a German actor to play Caesar, however, as his German accent may remind some viewers of Adolf Hitler, thus making Caesar seem even more evil.

Themes and Interpretations

In my opinion, the most prevalent theme in Druids is the unwavering character of Vercingetorix. From the time he is crowned king of the Gauls, to the moment of his capture his loyalty to the Gallic people stands, he puts the good of the state before his own personal benefit. The scene in which Vercingetorix throws down his arms, the lowest point of his life, shows him accepting his punishment yet defiant of Roman ideals, mirroring Lionel Royer’s painting Vercingetorix Throws Down his Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar (1899). In this painting, Vercingetorix holds his head high and throws his weapons at Caesar’s feet with disdain, while Caesar watches from his throne with disgust. Though he is defeated, he does not show any signs of sadness. Rather, he remains defiant to the end, a symbol to the Gallic people that the Romans can never truly conquer Gaul. The film, though it gives a different visual portrayal of the scene, conveys the same message. In the film, while kneeling at Caesar’s feet, Vercingetorix tells Caesar that what he has witnessed is only the start of a conflict that will last for years to come. Though he may die, others will take his place, and Gaul will continue to fight for freedom from the Roman Empire.

In my opinion, the film deserves all of the harsh criticism it has received in the years since its release. It attempts to be a serious film, but is too full of non-sequiturs to be taken as seriously as it wishes. These problems are in full view from the very beginning of the film, which depicts a Gallic religious ceremony. During this scene, priests walk around a fire and instead of wearing historically accurate clothing, they are clad in white robes and hoods, making them look scarily similar to a Ku Klux Klan rally. It remains possible not to laugh at the film for roughly the next seven minutes, until the meeting of Gallic chieftains, which takes place in an enormous underground cavern that appears to have been taken directly from The Lord of the Rings. The film continues relatively free of laughable errors until the scene where Vercingetorix and his followers slaughter the Romans in Gergovia. Here, one of the extras killed during the scene is wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Later, at the battle of Gergovia, the Romans form a testudo. A Roman cavalryman rides past the formation, and his horse clips a shield with an audible thud (00:53:15). Because of this, the soldier almost drops his shield, and his hand reaches out at the last moment to put it back in position. I had to watch three or four times to make sure that I had just seen what I thought I saw. Afterwards, with no explanation whatsoever, the Gallic soldiers bafflingly start throwing chickens over the walls (00:54:36), while the women flash the Romans, tactics that were neither previously discussed, nor talked about afterwards.

Before the Battle of Alesia, a scene occurs that has absolutely no connection to any of the events in the film. Vercingetorix is shown playing a game with a small child, whom he accuses of cheating; this leads to his wife, Epona, giving him a lecture on why the rules don’t matter, before he sees some deeper meaning in her words (1:47:12). Finally, when Vercingetorix surrenders himself to Caesar, his son rides with him on the same horse. However, after Vercingetorix enters the camp, his son is left outside, seemingly stranded with no way to get back home, as he is not yet competent at horse riding, making it seem as if Vercingetorix has just doomed his heir. These bizarre errors, as well as many others, completely change the tone of the film, taking it from a serious historical epic to a second rate unintentional comedy.

Another heavy source of criticism for Druids is the shocking lack of historical accuracy, which ranges from mistakes in the portrayal of characters, their actions and motivations, to major errors in depictions of equipment used in the film. For example, Caesar is portrayed as a subpar tactician, stating that he would stay camped outside Alesia until either his men starved to death or emerged victorious. In actuality, while Caesar did realize the danger of starvation once the Gauls had “cut them [the Romans] off from a supply of provisions” (Caesar, 7.56), the Romans were never in any real danger of starvation, as Caesar “found a path, suitable for those things which were necessary” (Caesar, 7.56), which allowed the Romans to continue provisioning their entire camp. Furthermore, the film claims that Caesar enlisted the help of the Teutons to win the Battle of Alesia. He was far less dependent on German reinforcements than the film shows, though, mostly using them to augment “the courage of our men” (Caesar, 7.70) when they began to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of Gauls.

Vercingetorix’s motivations are completely misrepresented. While he did hate the Romans, the film claims he felt this way because the Romans orchestrated the conspiracy which killed his father. In reality, he simply wanted the Romans to leave Gaul. Finally, much of the equipment depicted in Druids is completely anachronistic. One of the major errors is the fact that “The type of armor being used by the Romans is the Lorica Segmentata, which was not introduced until fifty years later, and even then was never in such widespread use” (imdb.org n.d.). Additionally, all the horses are equipped with stirrups, which did not appear in Europe until at least seven hundred years after the events of the film. Finally, while Caesar makes note of the Gauls’ fairly advanced technology, especially relating to their walls, none of this is present in Druids, which instead shows the Gauls as technologically impaired, possibly to make their chances of winning seem even lower. With these blatant misrepresentations of equipment and technology, the film is quite clearly one of the least historically accurate films depicting the conquests of the ancient Romans.

Overall, Druids can only be described as being an incomprehensibly bad film. It is full of errors and plot holes, the most notable one being when it simply forgets to name one of the major characters, despite the fact that she constantly trains and mentors Vercingetorix. The historical accuracy is subpar at best, as equipment, technology, and characters are constantly misrepresented in the hope of making the action more cinematically friendly. The film contains a perplexing number of errors made by actors that could have been easily fixed by reshoots, but puzzlingly remain in the film. Individually the historical inaccuracies, bizarre mistakes, and incoherent plot could possibly be forgiven, but when added together, they make for a film that can’t decide if it wants to be a serious historical drama or a lowbrow action film. Without a clear vision, the director created a truly awful combination of the two genres. These flaws, in my opinion, show that Druids truly does deserve its title as one of the worst French films ever made. It started with a grand vision, but something went wrong between the film’s conception and release, resulting in a film so bad that it is almost impossible to watch in one sitting.


(Header Image: Detail of Statue of Vercingetorix. Aimé Millet (1865). Mt. Auxois, near Alise-Sainte-Reine, France. Photo by Jochen Jahnke via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.)


Druids (aka The Gaul, aka Vercingétorix). Dir. Jacques Dorfmann. Perf. Christopher Lambert, Klaus Maria Brandauer, and Max von Sydow. Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), et al. 2001.

Beardsley, Eleanor. “How Gaul-ing! Celebrating France’s First Resistance Fighter.” NPR.org. Web.

Caesar, Julius and Aulus Hirtius. The Gallic War. trans. Carolyn J.-B. Hammond. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Ebert, Roger. “Movie Review: Never Say Never Again.” RogerEbert.com. Web.

Parry, Chris. “Movie Review: Druids.” Efilmcritic.com. 15 Sept. 2002. Efilmcritic.com. Web. 4 May 2016.


Hollywood and History is an on-going series featuring the original work of students in the course Ancient Worlds on Film. Papers have been slightly edited for publication.

Hollywood and History: Centurion (2010)

by Benjamin Fleming


In AD 117, Rome controlled most of the known world, but it could not control everything. Rome’s frontiers were hotbeds of uprisings and rebellions that could only be snuffed out by the full might of the Roman military. It is in this harsh climate that the movie Centurion (2010) is set. The film opens a harsh and foreboding landscape of crags and ice-covered valleys. Slowly it focuses on a lone figure running for his life, stumbling along the snowy mountaintop. The story is told in retrospect by the main character and opens with his narration, “My name is Quintus Dias, I am a soldier of Rome, and this is neither the beginning nor the end of my story,” before flashing back two weeks (Centurion 3:00-3:57). Centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) was stationed at the Roman outpost of Inch-Tuth-Il, located in modern Scotland, when a Pict war-band attacked the outpost under the cover of darkness. The unprepared legionaries were massacred, save for Centurion Dias (Centurion 3:58-6:50).

Around this time, the general of the Legio IX Hispania stationed at York, Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West),  receives a dispatch from Governor Julius Agricola (Paul Freeman) ordering the 9th Legion to prepare for war (Centurion 6:51-10:02). Dias, meanwhile had been taken to a Pict village. There he is tortured and interrogated by the Pict King Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen) for information on Roman troop movements (Centurion 10:05-11:46).  As Dias is being tortured, General Virilus is meeting with Governor Agricola who outlines the plans for the mission. Rome is on the verge pulling forces out of Britain and he is looking to make one final attempt to conquer the north before those orders arrive. Doing so, he argues, would bring wealth, fame, and honor to them all; despite this appeal, General Virilus states, “My men have honor enough.” Agricola threateningly responds, “Enough to disobey a direct order?” General Virilus gives in to Agricola and is detailed a local tracker named Etain (Olga Kurylenko) to lead the legion to Gorlacon (Centurion 11:50-14:00).

The Ninth is led into an ambush.
The Ninth is led into an ambush.

As the legion moves out, Dias escapes and attempts to make it back to Roman territory; on the way he meets up with the legion. Since Dias has just escaped Gorlacon, General Virilus asks him to lead them back to the village from which he escaped (Centurion 14:30-21:25). Unknown to the general, Etain is a double agent for the Picts. She leads the legion into an ambush in the forest where General Virilus is captured and only seven men escape with their lives: Quintus Dias, Thax (JJ Field), Bothos (David Morrissey), Brick (Liam Cunningham), Leonidas (Dimitri Leonidas), and Tarax (Riz Ahmed). As the survivors survey the dead, Dias speaks to the audience as narrator, “In the chaos of battle… it is easy to turn to the gods for salvation, but it is soldiers who do the fighting and soldiers who do the dying, and the gods never get their feet wet” (Centurion 22:30-29:13).

Because of honor and duty, the survivors set off to try to rescue the General from the grasp of Gorlacon. Arriving at night, they sneak into the village and try to break the General out of his chains, but fail, due to a war-band returning. During their retreat from the village, Thax unknowingly kills Gorlacon’s son (Centurion 30:00-35:00). The Romans are pursued by trackers led by Etain; knowing they will die unless they make it back to Roman lines, they attempt to lose the following Picts (Centurion 44:00-55:30). As they run, Dias explains to the audience, “My father taught me that in life, duty and honor matter above all things, a man without his word is no better than a beast. I made a promise to the general to get his soldiers home; that is my task; that is my duty” (Centurion 51:00-52:00).  Eventually, the trackers catch up to the fugitives along a cliff face. The Romans all jump off into a river below, save for Tarax, who is killed. Jumping into the river, though, causes them to be separated into two groups: Bothos, Dias, Brick, and Leonidas in one, and Macros and Thax in the other. Macros and Thax are chased by wolves, until Thax sacrifices Macros to save himself. Meanwhile, Dias’s group is harassed by the trackers. Bric and Dias attack the trackers camp killing all the trackers there in an attempt to even the odds; however, the Romans later learn some of the trackers led by Etain attacked their camp at the same, leading to the death of Leonidas (Centurion 55:40-1:04:00).

Continuing to run, Dias, Brick, and Bothos stumble on the house of a “Necromancer,” named Arianne (Imogen Poots), who houses them, treats their wounds, and hides them from Etain (Centurion 1:04:04-1:16:30). After resting up, the three set out for a nearby Roman outpost. Once they reach it, they find it abandoned with a notice that Emperor Hadrian has ordered a new defensive line to be formed south of the outpost. Knowing they cannot run from Etain any longer, they set up defensively inside the fort and wait for her now small force to attack. When they do, the Romans manage to kill the Picts, including Etain, though Brick dies during the fighting (Centurion 1:17:10-1:24:40).

Dias returns to Arianne.
Dias returns to Arianne.

Finally, after weeks on the run the soldiers near Roman territory. As they approach, they run into Thax and he rejoins them. Nearing an under-construction wall, Thax and Dias get into a fight, where Dias kills Thax, because Dias realized what Thax had done to Macros. While this is happening, Bothos over-eagerly makes for the wall and is mistakenly identified as a Pict and shot dead (Centurion 1:25:00-1:30:27). As the only survivor, Quintus Dias is escorted to Governor Agricola to be debriefed. Explaining what happened, Dias is congratulated by Agricola as a hero, but after he leaves the room Agricola’s daughter Druzilla (Rachael Stirling) turns to Agricola and says “We cannot return to Rome in disgrace, better that the fate of a legion remain a mystery than for their failure to be known.” Agricola, immediately agrees with her and takes it one further, “If word gets out, every nation would rise against us.”  He has his daughter arrange Dias’s death (Centurion 1:30:30-1:31:36).  Quintus sees it coming though; killing his assailants he escapes to the wilds where he returns to Arianne to live out his days (Centurion 1:31:39-1:33:11). In a parallel to the beginning, the story ends with it snowing and Quintus Dias announcing, “My name is Quintus Dias, I am a fugitive of Rome and this is neither the beginning nor the end of my story” (Centurion 1:33:11-1:33:25).


This film is about the disappearance of the Legio IX Hispana (the Ninth) in the wilds of Britain. This legend has captivated minds since around 1732, when John Horsley’s Britannia Romana: The Roman Antiquities of Britain was published. In it, Horsley used Roman records to identify the Roman legions stationed in Britain, noting the disappearance of the Ninth from records between the time of Tacitus and the reign of Hadrian (Manea). One of the reasons the disappearance from the records is baffling, is because the Legio IX Hispana was a famous and elite Roman legion created by Pompey and put into service by Julius Caesar (Lendering). Since Horsley published there has been an ongoing scholarly debate about the fate of the Ninth. Dr. Miles Russell, senior lecturer in Prehistoric and Roman Archaeology at Bournemouth University, contends that the Ninth was wiped out. He cites three pieces of evidence that a disaster of some kind occurred in Britain around AD 118. First, the Roman writer Fronto commented on the large number of Roman soldiers killed in Britain during Emperor Hadrian’s reign in a letter to Marcus Aurelius, indicating some type of heavy fighting. Second, there is a tombstone from Ferentinum, Italy, that describes “emergency reinforcements of over 3,000 men [that] were rushed to the island on ‘the British Expedition’,” early in Hadrian’s reign. His last piece of evidence is that when Hadrian visited Britain, “to correct many faults,” around AD 122, he brought with him the Sixth legion (Legio VI), which was stationed at York (York was the Ninth’s was last documented posting in AD 108). To Dr. Russel, the Sixth’s move to York implies a replacement or replenishing of the Ninth. Evidence against this was discovered by archaeologists in 1959. Archaeologists found stamped bricks in Germania dating to after the supposed destruction of the legion around AD 118 (Manea). This discovery gave credence to the argument that the legion was not destroyed in Britain, but was relocated to other parts of the empire. Without written records of troop transfers, it is difficult to confirm conclusively one way or the other.

It is within this ambiguity that the story of Centurion exists. When asked why he decided to write about the destruction of the Ninth, even without actual proof, director Neil Marshall replied that, though modern historians tend not to believe the Ninth was destroyed, “I like the myth and I stuck with that” (“Centurion- Neil”). In writing the story Marshall took lots of creative license. One major example is the anachronism of including Governor Agricola. Agricola died in AD 93, almost 24 years earlier (Tacitus l). The real governor of Britain at the time most likely would have been either Marcus Appius Bradua or Quintus Pompeius Falco (Everitt 185, 216). Marshall’s stated inspiration in creating the script was that, “I’d really like to know what could’ve potentially happened to them if this [legend] was real” (Zimmerman). The inclusion of Agricola would at first seem counter-productive, but if one looks at how the addition fits contextually, the move begins to make sense.

The legend of the Ninth states that it was ordered north to put an end to raiding in the Caledonia region of northern Britain. This situation parallels the sixth year of Agricola’s governorship as described by Tacitus. During that year, Agricola faced an uprising centered in Caledonia, and moved his army north to combat them. At one point, a large force of Britons surprised the Ninth legion at night, causing severe losses within the legion (Tacitus 25-26.3). In essence, to create a realistic set of events, Marshall took a similar, factual occurrence and placed it within the confines of the legend, trimming the actual event to mesh with the myth.

The film also takes license with Agricola’s his character. In Centurion, Agricola is concerned with gaining fame and creating a long-lasting legacy. This is seen explicitly during his conversation with General Virilus about mobilizing the Ninth (in which he admits that he wants to be the orchestrator of the final conquest of Britain) and at the end when he fears for his legacy and tries to have Quintus Dias silenced (Centurion 6:51-10:02 and 1:30:30-1:31:36). Tacitus’s Agricola presents the governor in almost complete contrast to the film. Tacitus summarizes his view of Agricola’s character as living a “style of life [that] was modest…. As a result, most people, who always measure great men by their display, when they saw or noticed Agricola, asked why he was famous” (Tacitus 41.4). He “did not exploit his success to glorify himself… he disguised his fame…” (Tacitus 18.7). The difference in characterization can be attributed to the role of Agricola in each situation. For Tacitus, Agricola was his father-in-law, so emphasizing Agricola’s virtues was not only a facet of the medium of biography, but also beneficial to himself and his legacy. In Centurion, Agricola was needed to represent the corruption of politicians who use soldiers as pawns to advance themselves.

Etain is a leader among her people despite her gender.
Etain rides into battle. Tacitus notes that the Britons did not discriminate between genders in selecting their leaders.

Another opportunity for artistic license was the depiction of the northern Britons. The tribes of northern Briton are difficult to recreate due to the lack of archaeological evidence about them. The northern Britons are called Picts in the film and they speak Scots Gaelic (Holden), but “Picts aren’t identified in the historical record until AD297, when they crop up in a panegyric by the Roman orator Eumenius,” (Tunzelman) and historians do not know the language the northerly Britons spoke. It would have been most accurate to call the northern people Caledones, after the people referenced in Tacitus, but historians still know no more about them. The only contemporary description is a generalization of all Britons by Tacitus who described them as being more ferocious than their Gaulish counterparts, yet able to be very obedient, but still refusing to be slaves. As for their military and governmental structure, “their infantry is their main strength” and “they are formed into factional groupings by the leading men” (Tacitus 12.1) Interestingly, “they even do not distinguish between the sexes when choosing commanders” (Tacitus 16.1). Even though they are called Picts, the film manages to capture these traits, specifically in Etain’s character—who obeys the Romans for a time but will not be a puppet to destroy her own people— and in how the Pict hunters follow her unquestioningly.

One of the most accurate aspects of the entire movie is its depiction of the mood of Rome towards the frontiers, including Britain. Governor Agricola comments at one point that Rome is beginning to pull out of Britain and it is later shown in the notice found by Quintus Dias in the abandoned outpost (Centurion 6:51-10:02 and 1:17:10-1:18:00). This mood of creating a more defensible frontier at the loss of some land was strong within the Roman Empire around AD 117 as Hadrian ascended to the throne. Hadrian began to put into a practice a strategy called “imperial containment” that limited the size of the empire, gave up indefensible territory, and created defensible frontiers as shown by Hadrian’s Wall (Everitt xxiii and 224-225).


Director Neil Marshall has gone on record saying that the film Centurion was 10 years in the making. One night he “was sitting in a bar with a mate of [his] and having a few drinks… and [his friend] mentioned to [him] this legend that he’d heard of, of the Ninth legion of Rome –

this entire legion of Roman soldiers that marched into Scotland in 117 AD and vanished without a trace…. I was instantly hooked. I thought, ‘This is going to make a great movie’” (Zimmerman). The next couple of years saw him working on the script. Originally, he considered a sort of supernatural, fantastic element but decided to keep it grounded in history. According to Marshall, “I came up with this whole story based on what might have actually happened to the Romans… and then actually, it’s the Romans that create the myth as a cover-up for their own screw-up” (Zimmerman).

As the script started to solidify, action star Michael Fassbender became attached to the movie which led to the casting of Dominic West and Olga Kurylenko; Dominic West was approached specifically because of his larger than life presence, needed to fulfill the role of a Roman General, while Olga Kurylenko had recently impressed Marshall with her stunt work as the bond girl for Quantum of Solace (2008) (Eisenberg). With the characters cast, Neil Marshall hired DRS Construction to help build sets designed by Simon Bowles (“Feature Film-Centurion”) and prepared to shoot on location in the Cairngorm Mountains, Badenoch and Strathspey in Scotland, and in Hurtwood Forest, Pinewood Studios, Ealing Studios, and Shepperton Studios in England. To help create the dark and dirty sense of war and to create the feeling of desperation and long odds, the film was shot on location or used practical effects, forgoing the popular use of green screen (“Centurion.” Imdb.com). Director Marshall admitted, “Maybe about 90 percent of the gore effects in it are practical and on-set. Unlike a lot of other directors, I don’t like to leave that stuff until the end of the day, unless I absolutely have to” (Zimmerman). Over 200 liters of fake blood were used during the duration of the shoot (Imdb.com).

Given the green light to begin shooting by its production companies (Pathè Pictures International, the UK Film Council, and Warner Bros.), Centurion was given a $12 million budget (“Centurion.” Imdb.com) and seven weeks to shoot. These constraints are unusual for movies of the sword-and-sandal genre. Normally they are given huge budgets and a long shooting schedule; for example, Gladiator (2001) had a budget of $103 million and was shot over a period of 18 weeks (“Gladiator.” Imdb.com). Zimmerman also states, “for Braveheart, Mel Gibson had six weeks to shoot one battle. We had seven weeks to shoot our entire film. We had like three days to shoot our big battle.”

Finally, to tie everything together, Ilan Eshkeri was hired to produce the soundtrack. Before writing the music, Eshkeri spent time listening to Celtic folk music from all over northern Britain, and drew on it heavily as his influence, even going as far as incorporating Scottish instruments such as the carnyx and the bodhràn. To produce the music, he had the London Metropolitan Orchestra record at Abbey Road Studios (“Centurion”). This combination creates a full epic sound very typical of films in the sword-and-sandal genre.


Even though in other aspects of the film, director Neil Marshall went out of his way to set Centurion apart from other sword-and-sandals action movies, thematically it is very generic with one exception. Like many other sword-and-sandals movies the first major theme of the film is that of one’s duty to others and personal honor. Honor is defined by commitment to a cause and keeping one’s word, while duty is carrying out one’s word. It is this simple idea that drives the plot forward. After the massacre of the Ninth, Quintus Dias convinces the survivors to travel north to save the general because it is their duty to the legion and to Rome to try to rescue the General (Centurion 28:40). Later, when the fugitives are on the run due to their failed rescue attempt, Dias remembers his father’s words that honor and duty is what sets man apart from a beast (Centurion 51:00-52:00). This idea can be readily seen in the movie The Eagle, which is also about the disappearance of the Ninth Legion. In The Eagle (2011), the main character Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum), crosses into the north to reclaim the standard of the Ninth legion and restore his family’s honor, which was damaged when his father lost the eagle. The idea of honor is possibly such a common trope for these types of movies because it is a way to legitimize violence. Violence is brutal and ugly, inflicting terrible emotional and psychological damage. Sword-and-sandal movies feed off this violence, but if the movie cannot justify it, the audience will reject it. Therefore, having characters fight to restore their family, to protect their families, or to right an injustice causes the audience to sympathize with the hero, giving the directors the ability to drive the story through violence.

The other major theme of Centurion is the idea that there is no such thing as a black-and white-war; it is always shades of gray. The two main sides in the movie are the invading Romans and the raiding Picts. The story is told from the Roman perspective; from this perspective the Picts are the enemy and they are savage, uncivilized barbarians who threaten civilized society. In truth, the Picts are justified in defending their homeland, though they are not portrayed as all good either since they pillage and kill innocents at will. Neil Marshall feels “that war is not as cut and dry as good guys and bad guys. There are heroes and villains on both sides. Both sides are capable of that kind of brutality” (Zimmerman). This is seen in the main protagonist of the film, Quintus Dias. Though he is part of the invading army, he is fighting not because he enjoys killing Picts, but to protect the settlements south of his posts. He is a man who is driven by the need to do his duty and defend his friends. In essence the film is about a man trying to survive in a world of with no clear right or wrong choices.

A unique trait of Centurion is its theme of women being both powerful adversaries and saviors. Normally, in sword-and-sandal movies, women play a secondary role—supporting men, defending a man, or plotting behind the scenes. For example, Varinia in Spartacus (1960) is there to motivate and validate Spartacus and to look pretty, but little else. Queen Gorgo in 300 (2006), is the rare exception of a strong-willed woman in this type of movie, but even she only factors into the plot on occasion, and only to defend Leonidas’s beliefs when he is gone. The two female characters in Centurion defy this established role for women in sword-and-sandal movies. Etain is a warrior greater than many men with skills unmatched by others. She has the ability to lead men unquestioned (Centurion 1:17:10-1:24:40). Arriane on the other hand is able to live alone, takes care of herself, stands her ground against a hunting party, and acts as a savior to Dias and his remaining friends (Centurion 1:04:04-1:16:30). This stylistic change is partially a reflection of the modern times, as well as a representation of a society (Picts/Caledones) that values women more than is normal in these epics.

Another way this film breaks the mold of typical sword-and-sandal movies is in its color scheme. “The director of photography, Sam McCurdy, and I discussed it for a long, long time. We wanted this to be a cold movie. We filmed it in cold conditions and it’s a very cold movie as part of being the flipside of what everybody expects in a sword-and-sandals film. When I think of sword-and-sandals movies, I’m thinking deserts and the Middle East and sun and dust and all that kind of stuff. With this one, it’s like, ‘Yes, it is a sword-and-sandals movie. Yes, it’s about the Romans, but it’s in their farthest, grimmest, coldest, wettest frontier. It has to have a totally different feel about it.’ And so we wanted it to have this steely blue feel to the whole thing and make the audience sense what they were going through; the shivers and the chattering teeth and breath, that’s all real as we filmed it in subzero temperatures. In order to help the audience really sense that, we gave just a little of a blue tint to it. It just makes it feel a little colder” (Zimmerman). This cold and icy feel fits into the horror elements incorporated into the film. The horror aspects of gore and an almost supernatural stalker help to heighten the sense of peril, and futileness of the fugitives in the vast wilderness of the north.


In comparison to other sword-and-sandal movies, Centurion both succeeds and fails. There is no denying that it has a thin plot that hinges on roughly only two points (the massacre of the Ninth and surviving behind enemy lines), and it pales in this regard next to the greats of the genre like Gladiator or Spartacus; but, it is on par with is close counterpart The Eagle. The other major failing of the movie is its characterization or lack thereof. Other than Quintus Dias and Thax, it is easy to mix-up the other remaining characters. If the characters were left nameless, it would change little to the story. In a way this is akin to the horrendous King Arthur (2004), in which the knights are named but if someone switched their names or changed them completely it would do nothing to the story.  These failures lead to a lack of depth in the movie, but it does not greatly affect it because the film does not try make its audience believe it is deep. The movie’s intention is to tell the story of what happened to the Ninth Legion, and why they disappeared from the records; the characters are there to facilitate this and nothing more.

Centurion’s successes, I feel, far outweigh these failures. The film does a great job presenting through its large, cold, and gorgeous vistas of mountainous crags and never ending forest, the desperation of soldiers behind enemy lines in an unknown land. It also succeeds in giving a satisfying explanation as to why the Ninth Legion disappears from the records by making it the result of a cover-up by corrupt politicians. My favorite parts of the movie, though were the fight sequences with their practical effects. The gore is at times over the top, but it helps the audience really feel the utter horror of being in the middle of a battle in hand-to-hand combat. Finally, this movie deserves a lot of respect for accomplishing all of this on a budget almost unheard of for action-adventure epics, with a shockingly short filming schedule.

(Header Image:  A stone inscription from York referencing the Legio IX Hispania, 108 AD. Photograph by: York Museums Trust Staff. York Museums Trust. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Works Cited

Centurion. Dir. Neil Marshall. Perf. Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, and Olga Kueylenko. Warner Bros., 2010. Film.

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The Eagle. Dir. Kevin Macdonald. Perf. Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, and Donald Sutherland. Focus Feature, 2011. Film

Eisenberg, Mike. “Interview With ‘Centrion’ Director Neil Marshall & Axelle Carolyn.” Screenrant.com. Screen Rant. 22 August 2010. Web. Accessed 3 May 2016.

Everitt, Anthony. Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome. New York: Random House Publishing. 2009. Print.

Feature films- Centurion.” DRSConstruction.co.uk. DRS Construction. 2015. Web. Accessed 3 May 2016.

Gladiator.” Imdb.com. Amazon.com Company. Web. Accessed 3 May 2016.

Holden, Stephen. “Two Vastly Different Enemies share a Common Thirst for Blood.” NYTimes.com. The New York Times. 26 August 2010. Web. Accessed 3 May 2016.

Lendering, Jona. “Legio VIIII Hispana.” Livius.org. Livius.org. 5 August 2015. Web. Accessed 3 May 2016.

Manea, Irina-Maria. “The Enigma of the Ninth Legion.” Historia.ro. Adevărul Holding, 2014. Web. Accessed 3 May 2016.

Russel, Dr. Miles. “The Roman Ninth Legion’s mysterious loss.” Bbc.com. BBC. 16 March 2011. Web. Accessed 3 May 2016.

Tacitus. Agricola. Trans. A.R. Birley. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1999. Print.

Tunzelmann, Alex von. “Centurion has a familiar ring about it, but it’s not because it sticks to the facts.” TheGuardian.com. Guardian News and Media Limited. 19 April 2012. Web. Accessed 3 May 2016.

Zimmerman, Samuel. “Fangoria Interview: ‘Centurion’: Marshall-ing Forces.” MichaelFassbender.org. MichaelFassbender.org. 27 August 2010. Web. Accessed 3 May 2016.


Hollywood and History is an on-going series featuring the original work of students in the course Ancient Worlds on Film. Papers have been slightly edited for publication.

Hollywood and History: Cleopatra (1963)

By Eleanor Kaestner

Plot Outline

The film Cleopatra begins in 48 B.C. at the close of the civil war for control of the Roman Republic. Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) has defeated Pompey in the battle of Pharsalus, which ended the war. Caesar learns that Pompey has fled to Egypt in hopes of gaining support from Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Richard O’Sullivan) and his sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor). In response, Caesar sends his trusted military advisor Mark Antony (Richard Burton) to Rome, while he goes to Egypt in search of Pompey.

When Caesar arrives in Alexandria, the capital of Egypt at that time, there is a citywide market occurring; in order not to look intrusive, Caesar instructs his men to go marketing. This was one of Caesar’s tactics in gaining the trust of the Egyptian people, before he exercised his power. Caesar learns that Ptolemy, no longer wishing to share the throne with his sister Cleopatra, drove her away from Alexandria and seeks to destroy her. He approaches Ptolemy saying that he came to Egypt as executor of the will of Ptolemy Auletes, the father of the current pharaoh. According to Caesar, he was directed by the will to keep peace between the joint rulers of Egypt, Cleopatra and Ptolemy. During this encounter, Ptolemy presents to Caesar Pompey’s head and his ring, in an attempt at showing his appreciation for Rome. Although Caesar had been looking for Pompey, he did not wish for him to be murdered. Caesar, in testament to his character, asks for the rest of Pompey’s body to be found and buried honorably.

Cleopatra attempts to seduce Caesar (Screenshot).
Cleopatra attempts to seduce Caesar.

Once settled in the palace, Caesar receives a package, in the form of a rolled-up rug, which was said to be from Cleopatra. When he unrolls this, Cleopatra is revealed inside having used the rug to sneak into the palace. The young Cleopatra charms Caesar with her beauty, standing her ground and projecting her power as queen while talking to him. She teases Caesar by pointing out his out-of-date maps, showing that even though she is a woman, she is educated and can lead the country just as well as a man. Cleopatra describes her desire to be sole ruler of Egypt; in a bid for Caesar’s support she claims that “Roman greatness is built upon Egyptian riches,” implying she will pay him for his support. Throughout Caesar’s stay, Cleopatra continues her seduction of him, inviting him in while she is getting massaged and taking a bath.

When Cleopatra warns Caesar that Ptolemy XIII has surrounded the palace with the armies of Achillas, Caesar orders the Egyptian fleet to be burned so that he can gain control of the harbor. The fire spreads and burns the library of Alexandria angering Cleopatra because she thought so highly of the knowledge the books contained. She blames Caesar and, during their fight, Cleopatra and Caesar kiss, officially beginning their romance.

Mithridates of Pergamum arrives the next day and relieves the siege merely by the presence of his forces. Caesar holds a meeting with Ptolemy XIII and his chamberlain to discuss the previous attacks; he charges the lord chamberlain with inviting and abetting war against Rome and with the assassination attempt on Cleopatra. Ultimately, the chamberlain is sentenced to death, Ptolemy is removed from the protection of Rome and sent out of the palace to join his troops. This punishment held the possibility of death because Caesar’s army and that of Mithridates were still fighting Ptolemy’s troops.

Caesar crowns Cleopatra as queen of Egypt in 47 BC and she tells him that she dreams of ruling the world with him. When Caesar is declared dictator of Egypt for a year, he trusts Mark Antony to take care of Rome while he stays in Egypt. Caesar and Cleopatra have a son during this time, Caesarion, who is accepted publically and said to carry on Caesar’s legacy, although the people of Egypt believe the marriage was a political alliance, not because of love.

Caesar returns home to Rome, and the Roman people and senate do not like the idea of calling Caesar “dictator” because it reminds them too much of the title of king. When Egypt is named an official ally of Rome, Cleopatra and Caesarion come to the city. It has been two years since the couple has seen each other, but Caesar puts on a large ceremony and gathering for their grand arrival. Cleopatra is admired by the Roman people, and Antony says, “The Queen has conquered the people of Rome.”

The senate is still discontented with Caesar especially when he proclaims “I must be the law, and my word must be the welfare of Rome… you will appoint me emperor of the throne” which results in fighting between the senate and Caesar over policies and laws. The night before the Ides of March in 44 BC, the senate tells Brutus (Kenneth Haigh) he must “save Rome from Caesar.” The senate says they will call Caesar “king” everywhere except for the city of Rome. Caesar while talking to Cleopatra about the strife in the senate, responds that “I have never before settled for half a victory.” He says that, as dictator, he recently appointed senators who will be on his side for voting. However, the same night the senate plots to kill Caesar. The next morning Calpurnia (Gwen Watford), Caesar’s wife, dreams that he has been murdered, and Cleopatra is nervous about him going to the senate. Despite this Caesar goes and is murdered by the senate. His body is burned in a bonfire in front of the senate building attracting a large crowd of people. That evening, Cleopatra and Caesarion leave Rome by ship, Antony seeing them off.

For more than two years after Caesar’s death, Antony sought the assassins. At Philippi, he and Octavian (Roddy McDowell), Caesar’s nephew and adopted heir, finally defeat them. Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus decide to continue functioning as a triumvirate. Lepidus would have Africa, and the islands, Octavian would get Spain and Gaul, and Antony would have “all the rest” presumably the east. The three of them would jointly deal with Rome and Italy.

Antony began his reign in Asia Minor, but was informed that he would need supplies, food, and money from Egypt. Apprehensive about asking Cleopatra for help, Antony summons her. She arrives on a magnificent barge in Tarsus, however, she only agrees to meet with Antony on “Egyptian soil” better known as her ship. She holds a lavish banquet while wearing a necklace made of coins with Caesar on them, which Antony asks her about. After a night of Egyptian entertainment and a large feast, Antony follows Cleopatra back to her room and proclaims his love for her. He tells her how he always has been “one step behind Caesar, at the right hand of Caesar, in the shadow of Caesar . . . ” After this he rips off the coin necklace, and they become lovers.

Meanwhile, Octavian tells the senate that Antony has fallen under the influence of Cleopatra, threatening Roman control of Egypt. Octavian refers to himself as Caesar, and claims Caesar’s legacy, which threatens the supporters of Antony. Cleopatra hears of this and urges Antony to return to Rome and resolve his issues with Octavian. During his meeting with Octavian in Brundisium, Antony agrees to marry Octavian’s sister Octavia (Jean Marsh), to show the Roman people that he has not abandoned them, and to secure the alliance between Rome and Egypt. When Cleopatra hears news of this marriage of state, she becomes outraged and devastated. Antony however does not love Octavia, and becomes bored in her company; he tries sending envoys to Cleopatra, but they are blocked. Antony goes to see Cleopatra in person, and she makes him kneel before her in front of a public audience. Cleopatra says that Antony must cede to Egypt a third of the Roman Empire to seal a treaty between Egypt and Rome. Antony proclaims that “I only have one master, my love for you” and surrenders to Cleopatra. She responds that Antony must marry her under Egyptian ritual, declare Caesarion to be king of Egypt, and then together they will rule in Caesarion’s name until he is of age.

In Rome, Octavian convenes the senate and tells them of the marriage between Antony and Cleopatra, depicting Antony’s divorce of Octavia as a rejection of Rome. The senate tells Octavian that they do not want to go to war with Egypt and Cleopatra, because it will mean going to war with Antony. Octavian manipulates them into declaring war, however, by reading aloud Antony’s will. It declares that he wishes he be buried in Alexandria next to Cleopatra. The senators now convinced, pour into the streets and encourage the people to make war on Egypt. War is declared when Octavian throws the golden spear into the Egyptian envoy Sosigenes (Hume Cronyn), murdering him.

Antony and Octavian meet in Actium, Greece. Even though Antony’s officers had trained cavalry and foot soldiers for a land battle, Antony wishes to fight Octavian at sea because of the size of Cleopatra’s fleet. During the battle, Admiral Agrippa (Andrew Keir) carefully manipulates the Egyptian fleet, drawing them out and surrounding their ships. Cleopatra believes that Antony has been killed on the burning ship she sees from her own barge, so she sails away from the destruction in order to protect herself and her son. Antony, seeing her ship leave, chases after her on a small rowboat and climbs aboard, ignoring all the wounded and dying Egyptian soldiers who were hurt in the battle. In the meantime, Octavian lays seasick on his barge, depicted in the film as a weak leader, even though his forces won the battle.

Back in Alexandria with Cleopatra, Antony falls into a state of depression, and says he feels dead. Octavian sends Agrippa to Egypt to offer Cleopatra peace in exchange for Antony’s life, but Cleopatra refuses, and says he can “have two, or none.” Each night Cleopatra finds Antony sitting in the crypt, where he pities himself. He tells Cleopatra that love was his master, that he followed her back to Egypt because he was blinded by a love that took control over all else. Cleopatra and Antony decide he must meet Octavian with the two loyal legions of Egypt, a decision which helps alleviate Antony’s depression.

Cleopatra orders Apollodorus (Cesare Danova) to have escorts disguised as merchants lead Caesarion out of Egypt for the time being, while Cleopatra stays in Alexandria; she gives Apollodorus Caesar’s ring to keep safe for Caesarion.

Octavian prepares for battle. He gives his orders saying, “I want Antony alive, and I want her alive, she must be taken alive . . . Queen Cleopatra’s second succession through Rome will surpass her first.” The night before battle, Antony’s two legions abandon him for Octavian; he wakes to find his loyal military assistant Rufio (Martin Landau) murdered. Alone, Antony rides into the middle of Octavian’s troops.

The next scene shows Octavian, wearing the ring that Cleopatra had given to Caesarion, riding in front of a cart carrying the body of the murdered boy. Back in Cleopatra’s palace, Antony is told that Cleopatra is in the mausoleum; thinking she abandoned him again, he falls onto his sword. Carried into Cleopatra’s tomb, he dies in her arms. Octavian and his men are then shown entering Cleopatra’s palace, where they find Apollodorus dead from suicide, and learn that Antony is also dead.

Cleopatra lies in state following her suicide.

Octavian rejoices at this news, as he no longer faces any competition for control of Rome. They go into the mausoleum and find Cleopatra with Antony’s body. Octavian says that Cleopatra can rule Egypt as a Roman province if she accompanies him to Rome to show his victory. She then notices that he is wearing Caesar’s ring, and thus finds out her son is dead. When Octavian is about to leave, she asks to rest alone with the promise of not hurting herself, swearing on the life of her son, which means nothing because she knows he is dead. Cleopatra writes a message to Octavian and then prepares for death. She commits suicide using a snake concealed in a fig basket. Octavian receives her message requesting to be buried next to Antony; he rushes to the tomb to see her dead with her two loyal servants.

Historical Background

According to Plutarch’s Life of Antony and Life of Caesar, there are parts of this film that agree with the historical record, while others are inaccurate representations. The inaccurate representations are used in the film either to thicken the romantic plot, or enhance the grandeur of the film. Plutarch in his Lives outlines his interpretation of the history surrounding this story, and writes to show character, not just the historical record of the time, so that the audience can see examples of virtue to better themselves.

Plutarch states that in 49 B.C., Cleopatra was forced out of Alexandria by her brother and co-ruler of Egypt Ptolemy XIII with encouragement from his three advisors Achillas the general of the army, Pothinus the financial manager, and Theodotus the tutor (Jones 25). During this time, Rome was involved in political unrest caused by the competition between Caesar and Pompey. In 48 B.C., Caesar defeated Pompey at the battle of Pharsalus in northern Greece, which prompted Pompey to retreat to Alexandria in hopes of gaining assistance from Ptolemy XIII. Caesar gave the Thessalians their freedom as a memorial of his victory, before heading in pursuit of Pompey.

Plutarch highlights how Caesar practiced clemency and spared the defeated whenever possible, especially when the people were or would be Roman, as in this case of the citizens who fought for Pompey in the Battle of Pharsalus (Jones 31). Plutarch tells how once Caesar arrived in Egypt, he freed Pompey’s friends who were arrested by Ptolemy and offered them his own friendship, because, he said, the “greatest and most signal pleasure of his victory gave him the ability to save the citizens who had originally fought against him” (Plutarch, Caesar 48.2). However, Achillas and Pothinus did not assist Pompey, and instead had him killed, in hopes of gratifying Caesar. Yet, when Caesar arrived in Alexandria he grieved at the death of Pompey, and asked for Pompey to have a proper burial, an act of Caesar’s high moral character Plutarch respects.

After his arrival, Caesar wanted to meet with Cleopatra, but because she was exiled, she had to sneak into the palace wrapped up in bedding and be brought directly into Caesar’s room. Cleopatra was born in 69 B.C. and was the third child of Ptolemy XII, the king of Egypt. It was said, “none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence . . . was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching . . . it was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which . . . she could pass from one language to another” (Plutarch, Antony 27.2-3). Cleopatra saw Caesar’s arrival as an opportunity to ask for help in her dispute with her brother Ptolemy XIII, because she knew from her father that Rome’s backing could help strengthen her position in Alexandrian politics (Jones 32). While talking to Cleopatra, Plutarch claims Caesar was captivated by her intelligence and way of speaking, demonstrating how Caesar cared about character and not just beauty. Caesar was named dictator of Egypt for a year, and in this role granted the kingdom of Egypt to the sibling rulers.

By the end of 48 B.C. the Egyptian forces led by Achillas plotted against the few Roman soldiers that were in Alexandria. Caesar took to burning his own ships in the harbor to block Achillas and his forces, but this fire spread and burned the great library, which caused Cleopatra great distress, showing her passion for learning, and her regret of the great texts being destroyed forever (Plutarch, Caesar 49.3). When reinforcements led by Mithradates arrived, the Romans crushed the Egyptian army, and Ptolemy XIII fled, soon drowning in the Nile river. After this, Caesar passed the Egyptian crown to Cleopatra and another younger brother Ptolemy XIV, but with Cleopatra in effect the sole ruler (Cyrino 130). After the war Caesar departed for Syria, leaving Cleopatra as queen and the mother of his son, Caesarion. Caesar left three legions in Alexandria, so they might remind Cleopatra she was queen because of Rome. Caesar after leading successful campaigns on his way to Rome was named dictator of the city, a perpetual and absolute power (Plutarch, Caesar 50.1-51.1). Plutarch says, “Caesar was born to do great things, and had a passion after honour, and the many noble exploits he had done did not now serve as an inducement to him to sit still and reap the fruit of his past labours, but were incentives and encouragements to go on, and raised in him ideas of still greater actions” (Plutarch, Caesar 58.2).

Cleopatra arrived in Rome sometime before 46 B.C, along with Ptolemy XIV and Caesarion. A statue of Cleopatra was placed in the temple of Venus during her visit, integrating the Egyptian Queen into Roman traditions (Jones 45). Cleopatra was also legitimized as ruler of Egypt and declared an ally of the Roman people; Egypt was thus protected from annexation. In the 1963 film, this was depicted inaccurately. In an extravagant scene Cleopatra and Caesarion enter the city on a large float through the Arch of Constantine. The Roman people are shown welcoming her, which did not happen according to the ancient texts. Many Romans felt Cleopatra’s presence was inappropriate (Caesar had been married to Calpurnia since 49 B.C.) and were not accepting of her. In the film, Ptolemy XIV was not shown in the grand entrance.

Nonetheless, a group of Roman senators were threatened by Caesar’s growing power and unpopularity with the people, so they plotted to kill him. Led by Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, the senators planned Caesar’s assassination for the Ides of March in 44 B.C. Plutarch states that there were many apparitions and strange prodigies that happened leading up to his assassination, claiming, “fate, however, is to all appearance more unavoidable than unexpected” (Plutarch, Caesar 63.1). Coincidentally, the day before he was assassinated, Caesar and a senator were talking about what kind of death was the best, and Caesar replied, “a sudden one” (ibid. 63.4). The next day Calpurnia begged Caesar not to go to the senate, but he still went. In the film, Cleopatra, not Calpurnia, begs Caesar not to go to the senate; she is also shown consulting a soothsayer to predict the future. The film uses Cleopatra in place of Calpurnia in many scenes with Caesar, even though Calpurnia was his true wife.

The murder as described in Plutarch happened in a theater that Pompey built, implying a supernatural influence guiding the events that were to happen. When the senators began to stab Caesar, “which way soever he turned he met with blows, and saw their swords levelled at his face and eyes, and was encompassed, like a wild beast in the toils, on every side. For it had been agreed that each of them make a thrust at him, and flesh themselves with his blood; for which reason Brutus also gave him one stab in the groin” (ibid. 66.6). Following the murder, Caesar’s will was read. A large legacy was left to each Roman citizen (ibid. 68.1), an act Plutarch used to reiterate that Caesar was a good leader who in the end truly cared about all those he controlled and conquered. “That empire and power which he had pursued through the whole course of his life with so much hazard, he did at last with much difficulty compass, but reaped no other fruits from it than the empty name and invidious glory” (ibid. 69.1).

After Caesar’s death Cleopatra returned to Alexandria where she planned the murder of her brother and co-ruler Ptolemy XIV so she could place Caesarion on the throne as her co-ruler (Jones 55). Although Caesarion was the son of Caesar, he was not named as heir in his will; instead, Caesar adopted his great-nephew Gaius Octavius, adding him to the contest for control of Rome. Mark Antony was another candidate for succession because of his experience as Caesar’s trusted officer and colleague.

Despite the question of who would control Caesar’s empire, the triumvirate of Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus, set out against Caesar’s assassins in 43 B.C. In 42 B.C., they campaigned against Brutus and Cassius, and looked to Cleopatra for financial assistance. In 40 B.C. after the triumph over Brutus and Cassius at Philipi, the triumvirate agreed upon a division of the empire with the Eastern provinces falling to Antony, the western to Octavian, and Africa to Lepidus (Plutarch, Antony 30.4). After this, Antony was pursuing a war in the Parthian Empire, and looked again to Cleopatra for money, which would work in her favor for a Roman alliance. Cleopatra, just as portrayed in the film, arrived to meet Antony on the Cydnus River, “… in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture” (ibid. 26.1-2). Plutarch’s Cleopatra is one who awoke passions that tended to corrupt goodness and sound judgment. Plutarch asks how “he [Antony] could yet suffer himself to be carried away by her to Alexandria . . . like a boy, in play and diversion, squandering and fooling away enjoyments” (ibid. 28.1). After spending the winter in Alexandria where he enjoyed the luxuries of Egypt and the company of Cleopatra, Antony left Egypt for Rome to settle disputes with Octavian. To increase the relationship Antony had with Rome after his time in Egypt with Cleopatra, he agreed to marry Octavian’s sister Octavia. At the same time Cleopatra gave birth to twins, and Octavia had three children with Antony, which the film did not include.

Cleopatra remained in Egypt for three years without seeing Antony, while she ran the country and kept peace. Octavia in the two years that she and Antony lived together, acted as a mediator between Antony and Octavian. Plutarch does not mention that Antony was bored with Octavia and longing for Cleopatra, as the film depicts. Plutarch describes, however, how Cleopatra felt rivalry with Octavia, “ . . . was seized with fear . . . she once could add the charm of daily habit and affectionate intercourse, she should become irresistible, and be his absolute mistress forever . . . So she feigned to be dying for love of Antony, bringing her body down by slender diet…” (Plutarch, Antony 53.3). When Antony heard, still enamored by her charm, he put off his Median expeditions to return to Alexandria, another example of how Plutarch showed the powers Cleopatra had over Antony.

In 37 B.C Antony went to Syria to get resources for his Parthian campaign, and met up with Cleopatra again, this time resuming their relationship. In a public ceremony Cleopatra was granted territories in Syria, Cyprus, and Cilicia in exchange for her financial support. This was not taken well by the Romans, who considered his rekindled relationship with Cleopatra as a betrayal of Octavia and Rome.

With a new fleet given to him by Cleopatra, Antony set out on an expedition into Parthia in 36 B.C. which ended in a large defeat to the loss of 20,000 men (Cyrino 133). Antony was offered assistance by Octavia as well but, when he asked her to stay in Rome instead of joining him, the alliance with Octavian was abandoned. Octavian reacted by engaging the senate and the Roman people against Antony and his relationship with Cleopatra. Octavian portrayed Cleopatra to the senate as a manipulative, power hungry force over Antony. Further angering Octavian and the Roman people, in 34 B.C. Antony gave Cleopatra rule over all eastern kingdoms, and declared Caesarion as the heir (Cyrino 134). This was a grant, according to Plutarch that he did not have the power to give.

In 33 B.C., the split between supporters of Octavian and Antony became highly apparent, and were further fueled by Antony’s divorce of Octavia in 32 B.C. After acquiring the will of Antony, Octavian illegally read it to the senate, where they learned of Antony making Caesarion his heir, and his desire to be buried next to Cleopatra when he died. This excited the men of the senate against Antony (Plutarch, Antony 58.2-60.1); Octavian declared war on Cleopatra in this same year.

Antony suffered great losses in the war, including being trapped in the Gulf of Ambracia by Agrippa’s forces, who were for Octavian. Antony’s chief military leader Crassus argued to fight the opposing forces on land, but “so wholly was he now a mere appendage to the person of Cleopatra that, although he was much superior to the enemy in land forces, yet, out of complaisance to his mistress, he wished the victory to be gained by sea” (ibid. 62.1). The battle of Actium thus took place in 31 B.C.; Antony’s fleet was blocked by Agrippa, and the battle ended in the overall victory of Octavian. In the months to follow, Cleopatra raised money to try to escape to India, but failed, and sent away her son Caesarion. In 30 B.C., Cleopatra tried to exchange financial aid for peace, but Octavian did not agree. Octavian went to Alexandria later that year, where Antony’s remaining legions joined forces with Octavian. Plutarch wrote, “Antony had no sooner see this . . . he retired to the city, crying out that Cleopatra had betrayed him to the enemies he had made for her sake. She, being afraid lest in his fury and despair he might do her a mischief, fled to her monument, and letting down the falling door, which were strong with bars and bolts, she sent messengers who should tell Antony she was dead,” to which Antony replied “troubled Cleopatra, to be at present bereaved of you, for I shall soon be with you . . .” (ibid. 76.2-3). Antony then stabbed himself, and when he heard the request of Cleopatra, was lifted into the window of her mausoleum, where he died in her arms.

Plutarch did not end his biography here with the death of Antony. He describes how once Octavian heard the news he grieved, “giving some tears to the death of one that had been nearly allied to him in marriage, his colleague in empire, and companion in so many wars and dangers . . .” (ibid. 78.2). Octavian then sent Proculeius to talk Cleopatra out of killing herself, as losing her would be like losing a treasure. In the film this was not depicted, rather Octavian is shown strictly as an enemy with no sympathy towards Antony. It was implied that Octavian killed Caesarion, and that this was the reason that Cleopatra decided to commit suicide. Yet, this did not happen according to Plutarch; he wrote that once Cleopatra died, her son did, too. Plutarch did not, however, confirm he was killed by Octavian. After being left alone and writing a letter to be delivered to Octavian that instructed him to bury her next to Antony, Cleopatra and her maids died through the poison of an asp hidden among a fig basket.

Plutarch spoke highly of Antony throughout the biography, “But it was his character in calamities to be better at any other time. Antony, in misfortune, was most nearly a virtuous man. It is common enough for people, when they fall into great disasters, to discern what is right, and what they ought to do; but there are but few who in such extremities have the strength to obey their judgment, either in doing what it approves or avoiding what it condemns” (ibid. 17.2). He also said Antony “was slow to see his faults, but when he did see them, was extremely repentant, and ready to ask pardon of those he had injured, but his generosity was much more extravagant than his severity” (ibid. 24.6).

Plutarch shows Antony’s strengths and weaknesses through contrasts, highlighting his statesmanship when Caesar leaves, and his submissiveness when Cleopatra came into the picture. Contrasts like these throughout the biography worked to show the peak of Antony’s glory and power, and the low points of his morality. Plutarch in Antony uses a moralism that focuses more on pointing out an ethical truth about human nature, rather than the moralism that tells the reader what they should and should not do (Pelling 15). His writing on Antony shows the fragile nature of Antony through his submissiveness and psychological struggle in contrast to his noble and brilliant nature. Plutarch does this to show readers that a great man can be fragile too, and brings together everyone through the natural instincts and emotions in human nature.


Cleopatra was released on June 12th, 1963 as an historical romance. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Rouben Mamoulian, and Darryl F. Zanuck, from a screenplay by Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall, and Sidney Buchman, the film won Academy Awards for best costume design, cinematography, production design, and best visual effects.

Cleopatra was the most expensive film ever upon its release. With an original budget of $2 million, location changes, a new director, and other complications caused the the budget to expand to $44 million (Cyrino 139). The film featured an “all-star” cast, which drew in viewers. Mankiewicz wanted to use the history behind Cleopatra’s story to create a strong central character, who greatly influenced two very strong, prominent men. The script was based on C.M Franzero’s book The Life and Times of Cleopatra, and took over two years to shoot.

The movie is 4:03 hours, with a  two-part storyline; critics say that the script and plot of the second part are weaker than the first part of the movie. The first part of the story describes the love affair between Cleopatra and Caesar, which possesses strong chemistry between the actors supplemented by a strong dialogue. The second part of the film describes the love between Antony and Cleopatra after Caesar has been killed. This part of the film fell subject to “aggressive editing and a guarded restraint between the two actors, which was not conducive for playing grand epic characters” (Cyrino 140).

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were involved in an affair while filming, which only added to the glamour and popular value of the production. Paparazzi photographs captured the couple spending time together outside of shooting. Celebrity gossip in the 1960’s was not as filled with affairs as it is today, so this scandal was major and gave the film a channel of free press. In a review by Bosley Crowther for the New York Times (13 June 1963), he describes “the memorable thing about this picture… is that it is a surpassing entertainment, one of the great epic films of our day… may come as surprising information to those who have blindly assumed that any film of such mammoth proportions and which has gone through so much storm and strife could not possibly be a cohesive, intelligent piece of work.” The extravagance of the movie matched the extravagant scandal and gossip that surrounded its making.

Set designers included an historically inaccurate Arch of Constantine of greater dramatic effect.
Set designers included an historically inaccurate Arch of Constantine for greater dramatic effect.

Another important factor that added to the glamour and luxury of the expensive film were the costumes and set pieces, which won the film an academy award. These set another record due to their cost: 30 wigs for Cleopatra and 125 pieces of jewelry totaling $130,000 (Cyrino 141). The extra’s in the battle scenes for Pharsalus, Philipi, and Actium had 26,000 costumes that cost half a million dollars, palm trees were flown in from California, and the fanciful barge Cleopatra sails in to meet Antony cost $250,000. The wealth of Egypt was reflected through these costume and set pieces; they showcase the wealth and opulence Cleopatra possessed and lived in. The scene in which Cleopatra enters Rome, lasting around seven minutes, cost almost $1 million (Cyrino 141). The soldiers, exotic animals, and Taylor’s dress—made from 24-carat gold thread—created the extravagant entrance that suited Cleopatra and Egypt’s wealth. This scene was not historically accurate, though, as it featured a reconstruction of the Arch of Constantine, which was not built for another three centuries after Cleopatra’s visit. The film not only attracts the eye with the grand settings and costumes, but also through the colors chosen. Warm and cool colors contrast within the settings and the costumes.

The actors play an important role in making these characters come to life. Harrison plays Caesar with sophistication, strength, and confidence, just how the real Caesar was. Harrison was nominated for an Oscar for his performance (Cyrino 144). Taylor as Cleopatra matched the challenge of playing the complex and powerful character, because she was this way in normal day life as a movie star.

This film focused on themes that parallel the genre of the film and that were concurrent with the time of the film’s release. The historical romance genre this film falls into encompasses the scandal and extravagance that surround the fragility and strength that powerful leaders can have. In the 1960s, the role of women in society was changing, so having the central character Cleopatra in control of the two men of the film, parallels this change (Cyrino 151). Cleopatra evokes the romance of the historical relationships among these characters, while still portraying the intellect of the queen.

The filmmakers explore various ideas of femininity through Cleopatra's various roles of siren, mother, and queen.
The filmmakers explore various ideas of femininity through Cleopatra’s identities as siren, mother, and queen.

Gender roles in this time were being disputed, and sexual freedom was becoming more accepted, providing grounds for the film to explore these boundaries through Cleopatra’s seductiveness. Cleopatra presented an image of aggressive female sexuality, and is seen through the techniques of the camera which highlight these features (Cyrino 154). Ideas of female sexuality are also compared and contrasted in this film, through the idea of maternity and fertility that Cleopatra exhibits. The exploration of human sexuality in this film creates a romance different than the submissive and dominant nature of the traditional gender roles. This film in comparison to other films I have watched, portrays the romance/historical genre in not only the historical plot it is centered around, but uses the contemporary ideas within the decade to make the themes relatable to the viewer.

I think this film did an impressive job of portraying the extravagance of Egypt through the sets, costumes, and thematic approaches. My critique of the film would be the length, which seems to diminish the interest of the viewer past the two-hour mark. The storyline of the romance and relationship between Cleopatra with Caesar and then Antony  split the movie almost into two parts, yet I feel some pieces could have been condensed in order to highlight the key scenes. I really enjoyed the extent of detail this film depicted, however, because it gave me a deep insight into the world of the Roman Empire and Egypt.

Cleopatra overall is an important film that through careful writing, casting, costuming, set design, and script interpretation depicts a crucial piece of Roman history. The technique of the director to incorporate current issues of the 1960s into the themes and messages of the film adds a realistic and relatable element for the viewer. This film accurately depicts most of the historical events as recorded by Plutarch and, like Plutarch, the film seeks to describe a moral code through the actions of its characters, in order to teach and empower the viewer. This film did a good job of engaging the audience in its historical tale of the extravagant and powerful Cleopatra who basically held in her hands the power of the Roman empire.

(Header Image: Caesar Giving Cleopatra the Throne of Egypt. By Pietro de Cortone, c. 1637. Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain {{PD-1996}}.)


Works Cited

Crowther, Bosley. “The Screen: ‘Cleopatra’ Has Premiere at Rivoli:4-Hour Epic Is Tribute to Its Artists’ Skills.” New York Times, 13 June 1963: Print.

Cyrino, Monica Silveira. Big Screen Rome. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005. Print.

Jones, Prudence J. Cleopatra: A Sourcebook. Norman: U of Oklahoma, 2006. Print.

Pelling, C.B. R, ed. Plutarch: Life of Antony. New York: Cambridge UP, 1988. Print.

Plutarch. “Antony.” Plutarch’s Lives. Vol. 3. Trans. Arthur Hugh Clough New York, NY: J.M Dent & Sons, 1910. 268-327. Print.

Plutarch. “Caesar.” Plutarch’s Lives. Vol. 2. New York, NY: J.M Dent & Sons, 1910. 530-81. Print.


Hollywood and History is an on-going series featuring the original work of students in the course Ancient Worlds on Film. Papers have been slightly edited for publication.

Hollywood and History: Agora (2009)

By Joelle Cicak

The 2009 Spanish film, Agora, directed by Alejandro Amenábar, is a historical drama that follows the religious upheaval of 4th century AD Alexandria and the life of the female philosopher, Hypatia (Rachel Weisz). This film examines the issue of fanaticized religion and preaches ideas of moderation, as well as the ability to question beliefs instead of blindly or stubbornly following preconceived ideas in a way that still rings poignant to viewers today.

Plot Outline

The movie Agora, follows the studies of the philosopher and mathematician, Hypatia as she attempts to understand the way that the planets, or “wanderers” as she calls them, move across the sky. Throughout the film she tests different theories, moving from the Ptolemaic system, which is Earth-centric and employs the use of epicycles, to the Aristarchus model, which is Heliocentric. In her studies, she is nagged by the wavering light of the planets as she tries to resolve how they orbit in a circle, which is in her opinion the most perfect shape. She is only able to reconcile this issue hours before her death when she realizes that the planets instead move in an ellipse.

In her dedication to her studies she spurns the love of her student, Orestes (Oscar Isaacs), by presenting him with a bloody menstrual napkin after he declares his love for her; she is also oblivious to the lust that her slave, Davus (Max Minghella) holds for her. A faithful follower of the Neoplatonist school of thought, she refuses to engage in the tumult that is caused by the clashes between pagans and Christians in Alexandria, invoking Euclid’s first law when she sees her students Orestes and Synesius (Rupert Evans) bickering over faith. Even when the pagans are called to attack the Christians, she forbids her students from fighting and continues to hold discussions after the pagans are barricaded inside the fortress-like temple of Serapis.

The only time Hypatia loses her temper is when the Roman emperor issues a decree that the Christians can dispose of the Library and Serapeum as they see fit, as punishment for the pagans’ transgressions. While she frantically collects books from the library before the Christians break through the gates, she screams at Davus, telling him that he is a useless slave. This incident causes Davus to leave her and assist the Christians in their destruction. Eventually he joins the parabalani, a group of black-robed Christian police led by Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom). These men mock the teachings of Hypatia and other such ideas of learning; they teach Davus not to question the acts of God.

With the destruction of the Serapeum and the outlawing of paganism, things only get worse. The Christians, under the leadership of Bishop Cyril (Sami Samir), turn a hateful eye to the Jews of Alexandria, attacking them during their Sabbath. Orestes, now Christian and a prefect, is powerless to subdue the hatred between the Christians and Jews; retaliation is inevitable. The Jews fight back, luring Christians into a church and stoning many of them to death. In response, Cyril calls for the death of the Jews, including women and children. Both Hypatia and Orestes try to calm the anger of the court, but they are unsuccessful and an emigration of Jews occurs as Synesius, now the Bishop of Cyrene, reenters the city.

Cyril, distrustful of Hypatia and hateful of her relationship with Orestes and Synesius, delivers a sermon in the old library, now converted into a church. In his sermon, he cites a passage from the Bible that women should always be submissive to men; he condemns Hypatia publicly, and tells all to kneel before the word of God. Orestes refuses and leaves under a hail of stones thrown by Ammonius, who is later executed for this action. Synesius comes to him later and derides him for his transgressions against God, causing Orestes to break down, apologizing to God, but stating that he could never condemn Hypatia.

Meanwhile, the parabalani join by Cyril in mourning Ammonius. Cyril declares Ammonius a saint and a martyr, whipping his brethren into anger; after he leaves, they begin to plot against Orestes, knowing that they can hurt him deeply by killing Hypatia. The next morning, Davus runs to warn her of their intentions, but in vain. They find her soon after she finishes a meeting with Orestes and Synesius, who tried and failed to convince her to be baptized into the Christian faith. With Davus following, she is dragged to the old Library and stripped of her clothes. As the parabalani collect stones, Davus suffocates her and leaves. His black robed brethren mutilate her body.

Historical Background

While none of Hypatia’s works survive, there are a few that focus on her. These include multiple letters sent to her by her student Synesius (later Bishop of Cyrene), Socrates Scholasticus’s Ecclesiastical History, Damascius’s Life of Isidorus, and the Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu —the only source to condemn Hypatia. The text that has the most to say on Hypatia is Damascius’ Life of Isidorus, chapter 43. Here, he describes Hypatia’s character with overwhelming praise. He states that she was not content with mathematics, but also studied philosophy, publicly lecturing on the works of Plato and Aristotle (Damascius, Isodorus 43A). He also states that she outdid her father in her intellect. Damascius goes on to describe her as virtuous, prudent, and just (ibid. 43A). These are all characteristics that drive her character throughout the movie, allowing Rachel Weisz’s portrayal to evoke an extreme empathy in the viewer.

Damascius, a Neoplatonist himself, had obvious reasons for praising Hypatia and for portraying her in this light. Neoplatonist philosophies were based on the ability to form constructions from an abstract idea, such as mathematics or beauty (Deakin 2007, 35-6). Since their world was one of ideas, with the concrete world as perceived through the senses coming in second, Hypatia’s ability to shun the material desires of humanity were extremely praiseworthy (ibid. 36). Damascius expounds this idea through the anecdote of Hypatia presenting one of her students with a cloth soiled in menstrual blood to abate his affections (Damascius 43A).

Hypatia’s Neoplatonist viewpoints would have contributed to her interest in mathematics, for mathematics is the most studied form of the abstraction mentioned earlier (Deakin 2007, 36). These studies also take on a religious aspect, for Neoplatonism contains religious elements not unlike Christianity (Deakin 2007, 80). Neoplatonist thought contains the idea of a “One” who is also “identified with the Good” and the means of finding union with the “One” are part of their studies in abstraction, which means separating themselves from the material world (ibid. 37). This realization makes sense of Synesius’s continued adoration of Hypatia throughout his life, even though he was a Christian (ibid. 84). The movie also makes a clever play at her beliefs when she responds that she believes in philosophy when she is accused of believing in nothing at all (1:24:28-1:24:39). Taken out of context, this line implies atheist views. However, with the knowledge of Plato’s philosophies and Neoplatonist beliefs, it simply shows that her beliefs differ slightly from that of the Christians.

The movie Agora uses primary source accounts such as this description of Hypatia, as well as political incidents and other events as a strong back bone, building the plot around it. The writers also use any holes or ambiguities in the sources to their advantage. For example, they recast the youth in Damascius’s anecdote about Hypatia and the menstrual cloth as Orestes, whose attempts to woo her fail throughout multiple scenes. There is significant evidence to show that Hypatia and Orestes had a close relationship, so much so that it is mentioned in the Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu. John states that Hypatia had gained Orestes’s support by “beguiling” him (Chronicle of John LXXXIV, 100). The knowledge of this account, although it was slanderous, creates an easy step for the filmmakers to combine the figure of Orestes and the youth. Furthermore, this combination is a means for the filmmakers to heighten the drama between Cyril and Orestes, as Cyril starts to make moves to condemn the woman who Orestes has loved for years.

Christians destroy the Serapeum and library in Agora.
Screenshot of Christians destroying the Serapeum and library.

Another area of ambiguity that the filmmakers use to their advantage is the absence of knowledge around Hypatia’s studies. The Suda states that she published three commentaries, one on Diophantus, one on astronomy, and one on Apollonian Conics (Suidas, Hypatia). This, and her aforementioned studies of philosophy and mathematics, is the extent of the knowledge about her work that has come down to us. Because of this lack of knowledge, the filmmakers take Hypatia’s studies to a symbolic level as she is shown trying to prove the existence of an orderly and peaceful cosmos in the midst of constant turmoil and bloodshed. The fact that we know her father, Theon, was the last president of the Museum of Alexandria—an institution of higher learning—also adds a symbolic nature to their relationship and the idea of the loss of knowledge via religious turmoil (Deakin 1994, 234). Such symbolism takes form as Hypatia is killed by Christians mere hours after her groundbreaking discovery in the shell of the library her father once tended. This hints that not only knowledge has been stripped from the Earth, but the means by which to acquire it has also been lost.

Although the film received strong backlash for its portrayal of Christians as violent and unintelligent, we can see again that the ancient sources are there to back this up. Almost all of the incidents of violence in Agora, whether incited by Christians, Jews, or Hellenes, can be found in multiple places. The violent acts of a group of black cloaked monks are also written about, which did, in fact include a man named Ammonius who attacked Orestes with a stone after accusing him of being a pagan and was later executed for it (Kaplow 2006, 12). Another accurate example of this religious anger is the destruction of the Serapeum, which the filmmakers mix with the Library, using Theon’s timeline to their advantage once more. According to the information available to us, after a riot that caused the death of many Christians, the Hellenes barred themselves in the Serapeum, only to flee from it when the Emperor declared the Christians could destroy it (Kapalow 20006, 10). It can also be seen through these sources that although no party was innocent, the Christians almost always were the ones to incite the violence and were usually victorious when the bloodshed ended, something that the movie makes very explicit (Kapalow 2006, 22).

Agora also accurately shows how each of these violent clashes incited the next, causing a cycle of murder and bloodshed that began with the destruction of the Serapeum, included clashes between the Christians and the Jews, and ultimately ended in Hypatia’s death (Kapalow 2006, 1). There is much debate among scholars, however, as to whether Cyril was the one who called for Hypatia’s death. Damascius states that Cyril had Hypatia killed out of jealousy for her popularity (Damascius 43E). While this statement tends to highlight his Neoplatonist beliefs and contrast Hypatia’s virtues with Cyril’s villainy, other sources agree; for instance, the Chronicle of John praises Cyril for disposing of her (Chronicle of John LXXXIV, 103). But modern scholars, such as J. M. Rist, say that Cyril’s involvement would be unlikely (Rist 1965, 222). Rist says in his translation of the Suda, that those who killed Hypatia were monks (ibid. 222). We do know that after Ammonius was executed, Cyril spoke his eulogy, and proclaimed him a martyr, as he did in the movie (Kaplow 2006, 12). This act was a direct means of undermining Orestes and could have incited the other monks to violence, due to Orestes close ties with Hypatia (ibid. 12). The Chronicle of John—like the parabalani in the film as they dragged her up the stairs into the library—states that Hypatia was a corrupting figure, saying that she dealt in magic and used her satanic wiles to gain followers (Chronicle of John LXXXIV, 87). Although this crescendo of violence seems too dramatic to be true, enough sources and accounts exist to show that the filmmakers of Agora definitely did their research.

Making the Movie

As can be seen by the obvious effort to research the historical context of 4th century Alexandria, Amenábar took great pains to create a believable movie that would transport the viewer back in time (Olsen 2010). He called it archaeology and said that it was a great feeling whenever they found something real to add to the script (“TIFF Alejandro Amenábar AGORA Movie Interview” 2010, 5:18-5:25). For example, he showed the crew images of late Roman Egyptian tomb portraits, proclaiming that they were reference photographs, or “the Bible” because of their level of realism, a theme that the movie pushed forth (5:25-5:46). Amenábar also stated that he wanted to show viewers as much as possible, the long streets, the architecture, the lighthouse, to truly envelop them in this world (2:50-3:14). He used giant sets and practical camera effects so that the characters had to move and react to a real space even though such effects would have been easier and cheaper to fabricate with computer generation (Olsen 2010). For example, when the Christians are destroying the Library, the camera pans upwards, over the dome, and then backwards, upside down (52:06-54:48). He also employed the use of impressive aerial shots to show the chaos on the streets, causing the Christians (who are cloaked in black) to look like an army of ants, running books out of the library to the fire pits to be burned (54:48-55:06). Because Amenábar felt that the actors had to physically interact with the space to give convincing performances, his crew constructed massive sets, employed thousands of extras, and shot the movie in the arid climate of Malta (Olsen 2010). Because of this, the movie took on the classic sword and sandal adventure style. The difference, however, lies in what Agora is actually about. For, as Olsen states, it contradicts the tropes of its genre; it is not only an action adventure, it is a movie about ideas. Amenábar states, “the real heroes in the movie are not the ones who use their swords, but the ones who use their minds” (Olsen 2010).

Rachel Weisz elaborated on this aspect of the film by discussing her portrayal of Hypatia and her views of the making of Agora. She stated that “even though it’s about ideas, what I wanted to portray was passion [. . .] I didn’t want her to be cold. There’s no love story, her love affair is with her work. To show passion for ideas, it’s definitely challenging” (Olsen 2010). Amenábar chose Weisz to play the part for the very same reasons, stating that she is “incredibly smart [. . .] so honest, so passionate (“TIFF” 2010, 2:11-2:21). Weisz said that what drew her to Agora was the naturalism in the acting and the realism of the film. She said that this is a film about today; it deals with contemporary issues of religious violence and the clash of religion and science (“Rachel Weisz Exclusive Interview for the movie Agora” 2013, 1:15-1:40). Amenábar related that the reason for the large camera pan outs that he creates to show the sounds of the Earth and the sounds of humans was to show that we sound no different today than we did then. We are still nasty and cruel to each other when faced with opposition (“TIFF” 2010, 3:50-4:12).

Max Minghella also spoke on the creation and portrayal of his character, Davus. Davus was a completely fabricated character, created to act as eyes for the audience and a bridge between the idealism of Hypatia—who represented intellectualism—and the aggressive faith of Ammonius, who represented the pervasiveness of the Christians (“Entrevista a Max Minghella y Oscar Isaac por Agora” 2009 2:45). Amenábar discussed how Davus is desperately in love with his mistress, Hypatia, and only learns astronomy because he wants to show her that he can be as smart as her other students (“Max Minghella – Behind the Scenes of Agora” 2013, 0:16-0:24).

Minghella stated that part of his job in acting this character was to figure out how much of his studies were because of his lust as opposed to his interest in learning (0:29-0:41). Hypatia’s flaw, however, is that she could never see Davus as an equal, as seen when she screams at him in the Library, stating that slaves are never around when one needs them (48:37-48:54). Davus’ realization of this flaw is a major part of his decision to become a Christian.  In contrast to her beliefs on this matter, Ammonius teaches Davus that the Christian God views and embraces all His followers as equal, regardless of social standing (“Max Minghella” 2013, 1:40-1:53). Rachel Weisz explained that the point of the bath scene was to show that Hypatia barely even acknowledges Davus is a man, since she leaves the tub completely unabashedly to be dried by the slaves, including Davus. This is recalled at the end when her clothes are ripped off by the parabalani and she is shown completely vulnerable and afraid (“Rachel Weisz” 2013, 3:39-3:50). Such conflict of social views creates another interesting dynamic to the already complex movie.

Themes and Interpretations

Although Amenábar and the cast talk openly about their experiences and the creation of the film, there is a lot left unsaid. While Amenábar mentions that this film is about today and hints about its views on religion, he leaves out the fact that there is a very obvious tilt toward the ideas of Islamic extremism. The evidence lies in the casting. While the Hellenes’ pale skin and posh British accents are not unusual in a sword and sandal film, Ammonius and Cyril’s Arabic intonation become immediately obvious. Both actors, who are Israeli and Egyptian respectively, play the most extreme and violent characters in the movie (“Ashraf Barhom”; “Sammi Samir”). They incite chaos in multiple scenes and seek to undermine the ideals of learning and scholarship which Hypatia and her followers hold dear. It is important to note that the Christians in the film who respect Hypatia and her interests, such as Synesius and Davus, speak with the same British lilt as the Hellenes. That being said, I argue the casting and accent decisions were made in attempt to make this movie relevant to issues that are pressing the world today, much in the same way as the large pan outs. Contrary to the beliefs of many angry Christians who oppose this movie on the basis that Amenábar, an atheist, created Agora to push an atheist agenda, this movie instead acts as a cautionary tale for anyone who believe that there is no compromise for their ideologies (Mark 2014, 1).

Screenshot of Hypatia looking out over the city.
Screenshot of Hypatia looking out over the city.

If one looks closely at each character, it is easy to see that none of them are without flaws. Hypatia is as unwilling to compromise her beliefs as Ammonius, to the point that the two characters act as foils for one another. They exist as opposites in this movie and seek to portray the two extremes of opposing beliefs; both are doomed to be martyred for their strict ideologies. Ammonius who is led by impulse, righteousness, and revenge, relies on his faith in God to guide him through a bond which is so strong that he claims that God speaks to him “so quickly” that he has to ask Him to slow down. (1:21:00-1:21:13). Hypatia, led by reason and logic, talks many times of allowing bygones to be bygones for fear of a self-perpetuating circle of violence. Hypatia is, for the most part, unaffected by the turmoil in the streets, looking down on high from the balcony of her fortress-like house where she conducts most of her research. Although she speaks in court about the issues plaguing the city, she does nothing to help those around her and searches constantly for proof of a perfect cosmos, even though there is evidence all around her that this is not the case. However, unlike Ammonius and his chatty God, Hypatia is constantly vexed by the mysteries that the wanderers are hiding from her.

Ammonius, however, lives on the streets, willing to jump to the occasion when the alarm rises for a fire. When he is feeding the poor, he teaches Davus that money is nothing when one can help those around him. Ammonius also shows him how to have faith in powers beyond his control and welcomes him like a brother into his band of monks. Davus learned the opposite from Hypatia, who taught him to constantly question his beliefs, but was never able to treat him as an equal. Such opposing idealism creates a rift that cannot be bridged. Though they never interact, they are connected through Davus who is able to see both characters’ fatal flaws as the movie progresses. Like Davus, the viewer needs to realize that neither of these ideologies are without flaws and the inability to compromise is what leads to each characters’ ultimate destruction.

In fact, the character who is most willing to take a moderate view on his beliefs is Orestes, who embodies thoughtful and questioning views throughout the movie. For example, he allows Hypatia to spurn his love without retaliation and states when the Serapeum is under siege that he might as well find a new religion (40:54-41:02). He also refuses to take the gospel as law, as seen when he refuses to bow, and only acknowledges his insult to God when Synesius comes to him later to discuss Cyril. In this scene, his outpouring of emotion and anguish shows that he is a devoted follower of the Christian faith, regardless of his transgression earlier that day. However, unlike the other characters in the film, he is unwilling to compromise his personal convictions for a greater idea, whether it may be philosophy or religion. Instead, he disappears after Hypatia’s death, something that the movie uses as a means to illustrate that he is unwilling to bend to Cyril’s will any longer.

For her part, Hypatia refuses to compromise her ideologies of Neoplatonism to the point where she dismisses the guards who are willing to escort her home at the end of the movie. This decision ultimately leads to her death. Instead of pushing an atheist agenda, Amenábar is pushing one of moderation. We live in a world that contains many opposing viewpoints, but in the end, Euclid’s first law rings true and there are more things that “unite us than divide us” (14:56).

The idea of power overruling moderation and reason is another compelling theme in this film. There are many points in the movie where Orestes tries to put in place moderate edicts and laws that are soon negated by the threats of violence made by Cyril and his followers. Similarly, Hypatia’s use of reasoning in court never seeks to incite any change, as she has no real power and no followers. Because those who value reason and moderation are unable to control the more violent, more extreme forces at play, injustices occur. These injustices result in the exile of the Jews from Alexandria, as Cyril calls for the death of women and children, something that Orestes cannot publicly oppose without the danger of the Christian half of the city rising against him. The strength of these violent forces only seeks to empower people like Ammonius, who claims that his actions are God’s will (1:22:22-1:22:27). Such powers force all of the dignitaries to be baptized in public in the end. When Hypatia opposes this, and Orestes tries to persuade her by saying that he cannot fight this battle against Cyril alone, Hypatia states that if her only means of surviving is to become a Christian, then “Cyril has already won”, perfectly summing up the main issue at play in the movie (1:51:57-1:52:06).


The movie Agora attempts and, I believe, achieves its goal of causing viewers to think critically about the belief set they follow, whether it be a philosophy, political party, or religion. Amenábar uses actual historical accounts of this time period to portray a theme that continues to repeat itself throughout thousands of years of human history. He shows with an impartial eye that all parties are guilty of blind faith in some capacity, which causes many of the characters’ ultimate destruction. In the end, he points a finger at the viewer, cautioning us to live a life of moderation, for otherwise only violence and ignorance can ensue.


(Header Image: “Death of the philosopher Hypatia, in Alexandria,”  by Louis Figuier. Published in Vies des savants illustres, depuis l’antiquité jusqu’au dix-neuvième siècle, 1866. Public Domain {{PD-1996}})


Work Cited

Agora. Directed by Alejandro Amenábar. 2009. Santa Monica, CA: Lionsgate, 2010. DVD. IMDb.com.

“TIFF Alejandro Amenabar AGORA Movie Interview.” YouTube video, 8:13. June 4, 2010.

Damascius. The Philosophical History. Ed. and trans. Polymnia Athanassiadi. Athens: Apamea Cultural Association, 1999.

Deakin, Michael A. B. Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2007.

—. “Hypatia and Her Mathematics.” The American Mathematical Monthly 101.3 (1994): 234-243.

“Entrevista a Max Minghella y Oscar Isaac por Agora.” Youtube video, 3:50. Oct. 14, 2009.

John of Nikiu. The Chronicle of John, Coptic Bishop of Nikiu: Being a History of Egypt Before and During the Arab Conquest. Trans. Herman Zotenberg. Amsterdam: APA – Philo Press, 1850.

Kaplow, Lauren. “Religious and Intercommunal Violence in Alexandria in the 4th and 5th centuries CE.” Hirundo: The McGill Journal of Classical Studies 4. 2-26 (2005-2006): 1-26.

Mark, Joshua J. “Historical Accuracy in the Film Agora.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. February 17, 2014.

Olsen, Mark. “Indie Focus: In ‘Agora,’ a faceoff between faith and science.” Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2010.

Rist, J. M. “Hypatia.” Phoenix 19.3 (1965): 214-225.

Sami Samir.” IMDb.com.

Suidas. “ Suidae Lexicon.” Trans. A. Adler. In Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr, edited by Michael A. B. Deakin, 137-139. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2007.

TheCinemaSource. Rachel Weisz Exclusive Interview for the movie Agora. Youtube video, 4:14. June 6, 2013.

“Max Minghella – Behind the Scenes of Agora. Youtube video, 2:32. June 11, 2011.


Hollywood and History is an on-going series featuring the original work of students in the course Ancient Worlds on Film. Papers have been slightly edited for publication.

Hollywood and History: The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

by Jonathan Northridge


The 1964 epic film, The Fall of the Roman Empire (directed by Anthony Mann) presents the era of Commodus’ rule as the origin point for the collapse of the once-great empire. This paper will strive to provide a thorough understanding of the film through an analysis of a few of the ancient sources on which it is based, as well as interpretation the film itself and the context in which it was released. Please note that the version of the film discussed here is the original 1964 theatrical version, and please refer to the “Works Cited” at the end of this paper to see which translations of the ancient sources were used in this analysis.

Plot Outline

The film begins with an even-tempered Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guiness) positioned on the Northern frontier of his empire in a Roman fort in 180 A.D. Despite the hostilities between the barbarians to the North, Marcus Aurelius insists that their leader Ballomar (John Ireland) be brought to him alive so that they can arrange a peace treaty and welcome the barbarians into the empire instead of continuing bloodshed.

Unfortunately, Marcus Aurelius has fallen ill, which he openly acknowledges to his servant and loyal friend Timonides (James Mason), and to the romantic leads in the film—his beautiful and strong daughter Lucilla (Sophia Loren) and the protagonist of the film, his friend Gaius Livius (Stephen Boyd), a high-ranking commander of the northern army. Marcus Aurelius’s illness forces him to ponder what will happen to the empire after he passes away; Livius embodies the same thoughtful and stoic nature of Marcus Aurelius, while his own son Commodus (Christopher Plummer) is, in Marcus’ words, “only interested in games and gladiators.” Because of this, he secretly names Livius to be his heir in order to prevent Rome’s collapse.

After a few weeks at camp, Commodus, the Emperor’s son and current heir (Marcus has not publicly announced his decision yet), arrives with an entire contingent of gladiators, including his advisor, Verulus (Anthony Quaylye). Commodus constantly criticizes the stoic nature of his father, and is dismayed when he learns that he is not going to be the next Caesar. He tries to prove himself in battle, but his gladiator army lets him down. Unfortunately, sympathizers of Commodus learn that Livius is to be the next Caesar, and they poison Marcus before he makes the public announcement naming Livius the next Caesar. Knowing that it is futile to pursue the throne without evidence of Marcus’ backing, Livius proclaims Commodus to be the new Emperor of Rome, and Commodus declares Livius second only to himself.

The second act of the film begins with Commodus’ procession into Rome as Caesar. The crowd adores him. He announces that games will be held to make Rome great again, and they will be paid for by increasing taxes on the eastern provinces of the empire. Commodus is warned by one of his advisors that the eastern provinces are in a famine, and responds by threatening war unless the taxes are paid. Lucilla recognizes that her brother is unfit to rule, and delivers her father’s Meditations to the Senate in an effort to preserve Rome’s integrity.

Meanwhile, Livius is once again on the Northern border of the empire, desperately trying to end the conflict with the German tribes. As the army marches through the forest they come across human sacrifices, which a soldier comments is “barbaric.” Suddenly, the Germans reveal themselves and a battle ensues. Livius tries to tell the Germans that they will not live as slaves under Roman rule (to the objection of a few of his soldiers), and the Romans eventually surround the Germans, who are hiding in a cave with the captured Timonides. Timonides is able to sway the barbarians to join the Romans by showing strength and restraint while they torture him.

Livius and Timonides return to Rome with the Germans to seek citizenship for them. Commodus tries to get Livius to back down by promising to give Lucilla back to Livius. However, Livius and Timonides appeal to the Senate anyway. The Senate initially refuses their desires on the grounds that they are preserving the integrity of Roman citizenship, however, once an old Senator illustrates that by refusing citizenship to the Germans they are stymying their own growth, the Senate sides with Livius. This infuriates Commodus, who strips Livius of his rank and banishes him to the northern army forever, and marrying Lucilla off to the king of Armenia.

Screenshot of Commodus attending the senate.
Commodus attends the senate.

The third act opens with the Germans enjoying Roman citizenship, and Livius being summoned back to Rome by Commodus. In Rome, pestilence and famine have plagued the city, and the eastern provinces (along with the eastern army) have begun a rebellion against the empire. Commodus asks Livius to lead the Northern army against the rebels, to which Livius grudgingly agrees.

In the East, Livius enters a parley with the provincial leaders, and is met by the now rebellious Lucilla. A battle breaks out; Livius wins, but he decides to join Lucilla in her new political alignment. He plans to march on Rome and stop Commodus from ruining the empire. When Commodus hears of this, he destroys the German camp (along with Timonides) to goad Livius into challenging him.

Livius returns to Rome alone (with Lucilla and the army stationed outside), and finds an alarmingly deranged Commodus, who feels invulnerable and has begun comparing himself to the gods. At the Senate assembly, Livius tries to get the Senate to overthrow Commodus, but they ultimately refuse due to political corruption. Commodus orders a pyre to be built for a human sacrifice (of Livius and his sympathizers). Commodus also buys the loyalty of Livius’ army as well, further illustrating the corruption that is rampant in Rome at this point.

Lucilla enters Rome, and learns that Verulus is Commodus’ real father, not Marcus (thus making Commodus an illegitimate emperor). Commodus overhears this and kills Verulus so the secret will not get out. Lucilla joins Livius on the pyre, but Commodus challenges Livius to a gladiatorial fight to the death to cement his position as an invulnerable god. Livius kills Commodus, and escapes with Lucilla while the pyre burns. The Senators compete to buy the captain of the guard’s endorsement as the next Caesar, and the film ends with the narrator claiming, “This was the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire. A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”

Ancient Background

The film drew from many historical documents and references to shape its own narrative and present a compelling story. By outlining a few of the primary texts that the creators utilized, one can gain a better understanding not only of the story that the filmmakers wanted to illustrate, but also the firsthand perspectives of those involved.

Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations

In the Meditations, Marcus Aurelius reveals the stoic philosophy that guided him throughout his life. He abstracts the concept of perception by illustrating an objective point of view; how different incenses on an altar can fall before another one does, but it should not make any difference to the observer (M. Aurelius 4.15). The goals of Roman Stoicism were to attain tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom through proper perception (observation with reason over emotion), action (living in accordance with Nature, working for a collective good), and will (determining what is in our control and the extent that it affects us).

In the Meditations, he presents summaries and examples for each of these paths to the ultimate goal. He outlines very clearly the idea of action in Roman Stoicism, “Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility.” (ibid. 4.24). As for will, he challenges himself by asking if outside influences, or things not under his control, have a negative effect on his character, one of the few things he does control  (4.49a).

The film incorporates Marcus’ devotion to this philosophy (and the principles of it) beautifully. The best example is when Marcus is contemplating his mortality before he is poisoned (~57 minutes). Instead of just showing Marcus as being a devout follower of this philosophy, it shows his struggle to follow it, which is a more dramatic and interesting event to observe. His resolution to meet death graciously cements the ideas outlined in his Meditations, and prepares the viewer to witness the reversal of Marcus’ ideals.

It is also important to note that in the film, Lucilla takes the physical Meditations to her friends for safekeeping after Commodus is declared Caesar (~83 minutes). She delivers them while saying to her friends in the Senate, “Let these not be destroyed, for this is Rome.” She anticipates that Commodus is unfit to rule, and wants to preserve the thoughts of her father in an effort to hold onto the good that he had done. While a touching moment for the character, it also provides the viewer with what the filmmakers determined to be the antithesis to the fall of the empire (embodied by Commodus).

Cassius Dio’s Roman History – Epitome of Book LXXIII

Cassius Dio’s biting commentary on the reign of Commodus provides us with a personal account from a witness of the emperor’s antics. Dio is almost relentless in his criticisms of the son of Marcus Aurelius; after Commodus became emperor, Dio claims that his political enemies were put to death (Dio 4.1). Dio also takes care to emphasize the gladiatorial interests of Commodus. He mentions how Commodus loved the spectacle, but did not follow the rules of the sport; he would slaughter animals without putting himself in harm’s way (ibid. 18.1), and demand an exuberant sum of money in comparison to the other fighters (ibid. 19.3). His absurd actions in the gladiator ring resulted in his ostracism due to fear and humiliation from both the common people and from his political contemporaries (ibid. 20.1-2, 21.1-2). To stop the rampant depravity and corruption in Rome and throughout the empire, Commodus was eventually assassinated by Narcissus in the bath after several other failed attempts by his political contemporaries (22.3-6).

In the film, Commodus is presented a little tamer than in Dio’s account. His affinity for the gladiators is explicitly stated by his father (~26 minutes) when he first arrives at the northern frontier (with a gladiator army in tow). We also see him training with gladiators in Rome after he becomes emperor (~95 minutes); however, the film lacks  any indications that he acted out during these games. Commodus also exhibited a few measures of self-indulgence and depravity in the film, such as forcing the starving eastern provinces to provide grain for games in his honor. He only turns murderous toward the end of the movie (Verulus at ~153 minutes, human sacrifice at ~149 minutes) after he has been driven completely over the edge. In the film, Commodus is ultimately killed by Livius in a respectful one-on-one gladiatoral fight (~163 minutes).

The reason for this treatment can be found in both the context that the film was released, and in the reconstruction of the narrative by the filmmakers to fit the action/adventure genre and their personal statements. Firstly, the heinous acts outlined by Dio could not have been depicted in a major Hollywood film in 1964 due to what was acceptable to portray in a film at the time. However, by having Commodus initially represented as misguided, the character development (or perhaps more appropriately, deterioration) provides the audience with a benchmark to observe Rome’s descent into depravity. When he announces that he is a god and demands human sacrifice towards the end of the film (~149 minutes), the viewer realizes how far he (and the Roman Empire) has fallen. And in making his death a result of the one-on-one fight against the honorable protagonist, Livius, the audience is presented with the classic hero-definitively-triumphing-over-evil trope that is the standard in the action/adventure and sword-and-sandal genres. The filmmakers decision to portray Commodus as the illegitimate son of Verulus instead of Marucs Aurelius, also underscores for the audience that Livius is in the right, and the true representative of Rome (a common action/adventure convention.)

Historia Augusta – Life of Commodus

The Historia Augusta “Life of Commodus” explicitly describes the Emperor as being deranged and murderous (H.A. 5.4-6). After becoming emperor, he abandoned his father’s war on the northern frontier and relented to the barbarians’ demands in order to go back and have fun in Rome as Caesar (ibid. 3.5-6). It 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 (Cleander) and intended to kill 14 more (ibid. 7.4-8). The Historia Augusta also describes his affinity 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.” (ibid. 11.11-12).

Besides the character description of Commodus, “The Life of Commodus” also sheds light on some of the material that the filmmakers most likely took into consideration for The Fall of the Roman Empire. He exiled (and later killed) his sister Lucilla, after she tried to lead a rebellion against him (ibid. 5.7). He demanded sacrifices as a god, albeit not human sacrifices (9.2). There is even a mention of the corruption in the state as well; at one point the Senate agrees to rename Rome after Commodus (Commodiana) and begins calling him a god (ibid. 8.9, 9.2).

The biography also includes a speech, in chapter 19, made by Marius Maximus in the Senate after Commodus’ death. In it he condemns and denounces the mad emperor’s entire rule, while ordering that “memory of the murderer and gladiator be utterly wiped away.” (19.1).

The film’s portrayal of Commodus’ life is once again slightly different than the one provided by this ancient source. While still recognizing his gladiatoral lifestyle (and the humiliation it sometimes brought him), Commodus did not abandon the frontier and submit to the Germans in the film after becoming Caesar. In order to make him appear more villainous, he is instead shown going against his father’s wishes for peace and ultimately destroying the peaceably integrated barbarians at the end of the film (~138 minutes). He did banish Lucilla after Livius stood against him in the Senate, but he did not put her to death (thus allowing the romance angle of the film to be played out, in typical action-adventure genre style.)

Again, he only began murdering people towards the end of the film. After the senate proclaimed him a god and renamed Rome after him (~145 minutes), he almost immediately demanded human sacrifices (~149 minutes), which outlined Rome’s descent into barbarism quite nicely (this discussion will reappear in “Themes and Interpretations”). The senate is presented as usually enabling Commodus in the film, and then vying for the throne after Commodus is killed to illustrate the corruption of power in an advanced civilization. The ancient source mentions a little of the same enabling for Commodus (the film drew directly from chapter 8 of the Historia Augusta for the scene in which the senators named him a god) but their attitude towards Commodus’ rule is usually critical instead of sympathetic.

Making the Movie

Producer Samuel Bronston and director Anthony Mann were the main creative forces behind the making of The Fall of the Roman Empire. Samuel Bronston planned to make three multi-million dollar movies in Spain (the other two being El Cid and King of Kings) to capitalize on the recent success of the big-budget adventure genre. In keeping with the style of big-budget productions, Bronston and Mann also resolved 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, though (allegedly due to an extreme dislike of Ms. Loren), and after Kirk Douglas (of Spartacus fame) turned it down too, it went to Stephen Boyd (IMDb).

Unfortunately, the lofty ambitions set by the filmmakers became their own undoing at the time of release. 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 preceding it, audiences and critics seemed not to care much for the genre anymore (for the conventions that Crowther criticizes are actually executed quite well, with some exceptions.)

Screenshot of Livius and Lucilla.
Livius and Lucilla have a chilly romance.

The film also has a few shortcomings, especially in comparison to its contemporaries. The romance between Livius and Lucilla falls flat in most of their scenes; not much would have changed if it were cut from the film. The pacing seems absurd too; in one scene, Livius has been banished by Commodus to the northern frontier forever (~115 minutes), and then in the next scene (with no indication to how much time has passed), Livius is called back by Commodus to reconcile (~120 minutes). Battle scenes also were not as emotional or well-executed as in its contemporaries (see Spartacus). If it had come out ten years earlier or later, perhaps audiences and critics would feel the same as modern critics feel about the film today; it currently has a rare 100% rating on the film critique website, Rotten Tomatoes.com.

Themes and Interpretations

Despite its ancient setting, in The Fall of the Roman Empire the filmmakers produced a commentary on the political environment of the U.S. at the time of its release in the 1960’s. Its discussion of civilization versus barbarism, as well as a sub-theme concerning slavery in the empire, gives the movie cultural relevance centuries after the events depicted took place. The film could be construed as a warning to America to resist corruption and elitist attitudes in light of the tumultuous political climate of the mid-20th century, or it too could fall.

A criticism of civil rights opponents can be found in the plight of the Germans. The film explicitly criticizes slavery and the treatment of those that were once perceived to be lesser than the Romans. When Livius surrounds the Germans in the second act (~89 minutes), they react violently to the thought of becoming slaves under the Romans and continue attacking until Timonides is able to befriend them by his endurance of the German ritual/torture (~90 minutes). After the Germans join Livius and his friends, Livius accompanies them back to Rome and tries to appeal to the ruling powers to allow the Germans into the Roman Empire as citizens (~105 minutes). However, he is met with arguments against his wishes that echo similar arguments found in the rejection of the civil rights movement in the mid-20th century, such as preserving the integrity of citizenship. The film then explicitly states (through the wise old senator) that by denying these people equal rights, it is not preserving the integrity of the empire, but setting it up for failure (~111 minutes).

The pitting of civilization against barbarism allows the filmmakers to illustrate how advanced civilizations can justify cruel actions (which may end up destroying a civilization like in the film.) Perhaps the most obvious example of this commentary is found in the presentation of human sacrifice in the film. When Livius is hunting the Germans in the second act (~87 minutes), one of his commanders realizes that they have stumbled upon the remains of human sacrifices, and draws the conclusions that the barbarians must be close (and indeed they were.) Later in the film, however, in the advanced civilization of Rome, Commodus demands a human sacrifice after he has convinced himself and the senate that he is a god (~149 minutes). Thus, the viewer sees a justification of barbaric activities through an advanced civilization. The filmmakers used this imagery to once again warn American audiences against corruption and becoming complacent in accepting uncivilized behavior as a part of their social-political system.

These arguments are executed quite well in the film, but unfortunately other aspects of the film detract from the strength of the political statement. Stephen Boyd delivers a rather unimpressive performance as Livius, which prevents the viewer from sympathizing with the character and his ideals. Also, the entire romance subplot barely serves any narrative purpose; the absence of any chemistry between Sophia Loren and Stephen Boyd provides no justification for this superfluous aspect of the film, and further takes away from the noble political statements that the filmmakers tried to make. Perhaps if another actor had portrayed Livius and the romance was either fleshed out or cut entirely, then the political statements would have had more clout and the 1964 reaction to the film could have been more positive.


The Fall of the Roman Empire utilizes ancient source material to present a snapshot from the past as a warning to current affairs. The filmmakers took a few liberties in regards to the depiction of the events and the characters to fit the context of the action-adventure genre and the time at which it appeared in theaters, however, it is ultimately a well-crafted film. If it had come out at a different time in cinematic history, it might have been considered much greater than it was perceived at the time of its release. Fortunately, viewers today recognize the beauty of the work, and this author believes that it should be considered a Hollywood classic and champion of the sword-and-sandal genre.


(Header Image: Last Words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Eugène Delacroix, 1844. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon. Public Domain. {{PD-1996}})

Works Cited

Crowther, Bosley. “Screen: Romans Versus Barbarians: Spectacles and Melees in ‘Fall of Empire'” New York Times 27 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. 05 May 2016.

The Fall of the Roman Empire. Anthony Mann, director. Samuel Bronston, producer. Starring Stephen Boyd and Sophia Loren. Paramount Pictures, 1964. DVD.

“The Fall of the Roman Empire.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 04 May 2016.

“The Fall of the Roman Empire.” Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango and Flixster, n.d. Web. 04 May.

“Life of Commodus.” Historia Augusta. Trans. David Magie. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 2006. Print.

Spartacus. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Kirk Douglas. Universal Pictures Co., 1960. DVD.

Weiler, A. H. “View from a Local Vantage Point.” New York Times 9 July 1961. Web. 3 May 2016.


Hollywood and History is an on-going series featuring the original work of students in the course Ancient Worlds on Film. Papers have been slightly edited for publication.