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 She teases Caesar by pointing out his out-of-date maps, showing that even though she is a woman, she is educated and can lead the country just as well as a man.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.