Monthly ArchiveFebruary 2017

"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}}

Hollywood and History: Agora (2009)

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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.

“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.”

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.

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

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

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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

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., 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.


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