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

Cameron Cunningham (’20) argues that Anthony Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) served as a warning to the United States to resist corruption and discriminatory attitudes, and a reminder that great power should be used for good.

Anthony Mann checking out a model of his set for THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964)
Anthony Mann checking out a model of his set for THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964)

The film I decided to watch was, The Fall of the Roman Empire, directed by Anthony Mann. I enjoyed the more recent film Gladiator (directed by Ridley Scott), and was interested to see if there were some similarities. Indeed, there were many similarities as well as differences but perhaps the most obvious was, Scott’s film is about a betrayed Roman General seeking revenge against the emperor while Mann’s film was more of a portrayal of Commodus’ rule as the downfall of the Roman empire. A voice-over epilogue at the end of the film even states that this political infighting continued for the rest of Roman history, leading to the government’s eventual collapse. I think the underlying messages of the film were implemented beautifully and it was much more than just a generic sword-and-sandal film. It was interesting to see the connection between the fall of this empire and what contributed to it, and the political events occurring at the release of the film. In this paper I will attempt to provide a better understanding of the film through an analysis of the ancient background on which it is based, as well as the themes of the film itself and the techniques and production styles used.

The film begins in 180 A.D. with the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness), on the Northern frontier trying to keep the Germanic barbarians from invading his territories. It seems that this war has been draining on the old emperor because he wishes to end it by making a peace treaty with the leader of the barbarians, Ballomar (John Ireland), and wants them to be a part of the empire. It is also made clear that Marcus Aurelius has become ill, which he openly admits to his loyal servant Timonides (James Mason), his beautiful daughter Lucilla (Sophia Loren) and his stern and honest general Gaius Livius (Stephen Boyd). Marcus Aurelius’ illness forces him to think about what will happen to the empire after he passes away. He knows he can’t leave it in the hands of his charismatic but brutal son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), so he turns to Livius, a more honorable man who follows similar stoic principles as that of Aurelius himself. Marcus Aurelius tells Livius secretly that he will be the heir however, Commodus eventually finds out and is in shock that he will not be the next Caesar. Commodus attempts to prove himself in battle with his army of gladiators and his trusting advisor, Verulus (Anthony Quayle), but he ultimately fails. Later, Aurelius summons all the governors of the Roman empire to his headquarters, intending to announce Livius’ future appointment. Before he can do so he is poisoned by Commodus’ followers, who hope to secure their own political future by putting their friend on the throne. Their plot works and Livius stands down knowing that he would never be accepted as emperor without Aurelius’ explicit backing; he lets his old friend take the position instead.

In the next scene of the film, Commodus is shown parading into Rome as the new Caesar. He dedicates himself to undoing all Aurelius’ policies and announces that games will be held in Rome’s honor. This means blatant favoritism towards Rome, which is enriched by taxation of the provinces that were supposed to be equals. Even though some of these provinces are in famine, Commodus threatens war if the taxes aren’t paid. This is when Lucilla realizes Rome is in danger, she decides to bring her father’s Meditations to her friends in the Senate as a last effort to maintain what good is still left within Rome.

Meanwhile, Livius’ army gains an important victory on the frontier, capturing the German leader Ballomar and his men. Livius tries to convince the Germans that they will not live as slaves under Roman rule but they are against it. However, Timonides is able to win their trust by successfully withstanding the torture of having his hand burned in a fire. Livius and Timonides return to Rome with the Germans to put Aurelius’ policy into effect despite disapproval from Commodus. The Senate initially refuses their wishes because they believe they are preserving the integrity of Roman citizenship, however, a speech by Timonides persuades the Senate to let the German captives become implemented in the Roman society, thereby stimulating growth within the empire. Commodus is made furious by this and banishes Livius to the northern frontier. He also sends Lucilla to Armenia and forces her to marry the king. Eventually, Commodus is forced to call upon Livius to extinguish a rebellion occurring in the eastern provinces. When Livius arrives, he is shocked to find that Lucilla is behind the rebellion. She tries to get him to join her in separating from the empire but he refuses. After Livius wins the battle, he changes his mind and decides to join Lucilla in her mission. They plan to march on Rome and stop Commodus from tearing down the empire by convincing the Senate to overthrow him. The corruption has spread too much at this point and the Senate does nothing. Commodus responds by bribing soldiers to abandon Livius and then slaughters Timonides and the rest of the German colony. At this point, Lucilla learns that Verulus is Commodus’ real father. This means that Commodus was not the rightful heir to the throne. Once Commodus hears of this he murders Verulus so the news would remain a secret. He also orders a pyre to be built for a human sacrifice of Livius and Lucilla. Interestingly, instead of having him be put to death, Commodus challenges Livius to a gladiatorial fight. Livius ultimately kills Commodus in the duel and the Senate offers to make Livius emperor, but he refuses. Being the moral man he is, he realizes that the Roman government is now too corrupt for him to fix. He leaves with Lucilla, leaving Commodus’ old advisers to dispute about who will take the emperor’s place.

There were many historical documents and references used to shape this film and present a story the viewer would enjoy. When we look into these texts that the creators chose to draw from, we can better understand what the filmmakers wanted to show and also see the perspectives of those involved during this time. In the Meditations, we learn more about Marcus Aurelius’ perspective through the stoic philosophy that guided him throughout his life. The goals of Roman Stoicism were to attain tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom through proper perception, action, and will. He speaks of ways to attain these goals in the Meditations through examples of various paths and mindsets one should take. For example, on the topic of reaching tranquility Aurelius states that the best way to get away from it all is, “By going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul” (Meditations 4.35). This also goes along with determining what is in our control and how we let it affects us. “The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception” (Mediations 4.38). He reminds himself that nothing is permanent and not everything is in his control. It is also interesting to read in the Meditations how he is constantly reviewing and challenging himself and then be able to see it play out in the film. The filmmakers did a great job showing his devotion to stoicism, more specifically his willingness to accept death as part of life. An example of this is the scene where Aurelius is questioning his mortality before he is poisoned by Commodus’ followers (00:58:00). The filmmakers also included another event in the film that inferred the coming downfall of Rome and the importance of the Meditations. Although it is not historically proven, at one point in the film Lucilla takes her father’s Meditations to her friends in the Senate (01:23:00). She hopes that the words of her father will be preserved and that Rome will not be completely lost but this implies a turning point in the film with the rise of Commodus.

The Historia Augusta “Life of Commodus” describes Commodus as being deranged and murderous (H.A). After becoming emperor, he abandoned his father’s war on the northern frontier and conceded to the barbarians’ demands in order to go back and have fun in Rome as Caesar (H.A). It also provides a list of murders and depraved acts that Commodus supposedly carried out. He is said to have murdered at least 20 of his friends while trying to replace his former co-commander and intended to kill 14 more (H.A). The Historia Augusta also mentions his love for gladiator combat, “He regularly took part in the spectacles, and as often as he did so, ordered the fact to be inscribed in the public records. It is said that he engaged in gladiator bouts 735 times.” (H.A). The film’s portrayal of Commodus’ life is slightly different than the one provided by this ancient source. While still acknowledging his gladiatorial lifestyle, Commodus did not abandon the frontier and submit to the Germans in the film after becoming Caesar. He is instead shown going against his father’s wishes for peace and annihilates barbarians at the end of the film (02:18:00). Also, he did banish Lucilla after Livius stood against him in the Senate, but he did not put her to death, as was mentioned by the source. Additionally, he only began murdering people towards the end of the film. After the senate proclaimed him a god and renamed Rome after him (02:25:00), he almost immediately began to demand sacrifices which outlined Rome’s descent into savagery. The senate is presented as usually enabling Commodus in the film, and then competing for the throne after Commodus is killed to illustrate the corruption of power in an advanced civilization. The ancient source mentions Commodus being named a god by the Senate however, their views of him according to the sources were mainly negative.

Another source that can be used to interpret the motives in this film and perhaps give us a personal account of what it was really like during Commodus’ reign is Cassius Dio’s writings.  Dio did not hold back in his criticisms of Commodus as emperor, Dio claims that his political enemies were put to death, as well as some of his associates whom he suspected to be plotting against him (Dio). Dio also notes the gladiatorial interests of Commodus. He mentions how Commodus loved the spectacles, but did not follow the rules of the sport. He would demand large sums of money for performing and often gave himself advantages against other gladiators. Also, while battling beasts he made sure to keep himself away from any harm (Dio). He was not liked among the common people, he was feared. There was no respect for him especially from his political adversaries who despised him, there were even a few attempted assassinations on his life. In the film, Commodus is not presented like this. It is clear he enjoys gladiators; his father even says Commodus is, “only interested in games and gladiators.” We also see him training with gladiators in Rome once he becomes emperor (01:33:00). Still, the film doesn’t show many instances of him acting the way he did according to Cassius Dio. As mentioned before, he only seems to turns murderous toward the end of the movie when he demands sacrifices and kills Verulus (02:33:00). The filmmakers reasoning for not including some of Dio’s accounts are pretty obvious. The gruesome events performed by Commodus could not have been shown in a film during 1964 because it was not considered appropriate during this time. That being said, the filmmakers were still able to give the audience negative feelings toward Commodus by easing them into it. They didn’t jump right into his murders or gladiatorial events but instead started off by showing him as irrational and without morals. By the end of the film, when he starts proclaiming himself as a god and performing sacrifices, the audience is able to see how he has spiraled out of control. The filmmakers also implement the classic good vs evil approach by having Livius beat Commodus in a gladiatorial match, this was a common tactic used by filmmakers during this time and was a more accepted way to display violence and death on film.

The main creative forces behind the making of The Fall of the Roman Empire were producer Samuel Bronston and director Anthony Mann. Samuel Bronston planned this multi-million-dollar movie to be shot in Spain and spared no cost in the creation of it because of the recent success of the big-budget adventure genre. In keeping with the flair of big-budget productions, Bronston and Mann also agreed to pursue big-budget names for their cast (Weiler). Charlton Heston previously worked with Mann and Bronston on El Cid, and they wished for him to join the cast again with Sophia Loren. Heston ultimately refused the role, and after Kirk Douglas turned it down too, it went to Stephen Boyd (IMDb). Although the filmmakers were expecting a great success, the market was oversaturated with big-budget, sword-and-sandal movies by this point in Hollywood history. In a review for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther loathed its larger-than-life characters, and described one chariot scene as a lackluster imitation of Ben-Hur. With successful movies such as Spartacus and El Cid immediately before it, audiences and critics seemed not to care much for the genre anymore. Had the film come out earlier or perhaps later, maybe it would have been more appealing for audiences. The film also has a few weaknesses, especially in comparison to its contemporaries. The romance between Livius and Lucilla falls short in most of their scenes; I feel the movie would have been just the same without this attempt at a romantic appeal. Battle scenes also were not as expressive or well-executed as in its contemporaries such as Spartacus. That being said, modern critics today recognize the beauty of the work, and many believe that it should be considered a Hollywood classic and held as one of the best in the sword-and-sandal genre. In fact, it currently has a rating of 100% on the review website Rotten Tomatoes.

The main themes that I think the filmmakers were trying to deliver had to do with the political environment of the U.S. during the 1960’s and the topic of sophisticated civilizations vs lesser civilizations. The film could serve as a warning to the United States to resist corruption and discriminatory attitudes, and a reminder that great power should be used for good. The film explicitly criticizes slavery and how the Romans treated those under them. When Livius surrounds the Germans in the second act (01:29:00), they refuse to stand down and continue attacking until Timonides is able to gain their trust through his strength after being tortured. After the Germans join Livius and his comrades, Livius escorts them back to Rome and tries to appeal to the Senate to allow the Germans into the Roman Empire as citizens (01:45:00). However, many of the senators oppose his requests which seems eerily similar to those who were in rejection to the ideas during the civil rights movement. The film then relates back to the theme of resisting discriminatory attitudes by having a member of the senate speak in favor of allowing these people to have the same rights Romans have. He specifically says, “that by denying these people equal rights, it is not preserving the integrity of the empire, but setting it up for failure.” It was also interesting to me to look at how brutality was justified in the film on the basis that superior civilizations (like Rome) were never in the wrong. Because they were being cruel to the so called “Barbarians” it wasn’t looked upon as evil in the eyes of the senate or Rome’s other leaders. However, this contributed to Rome’s downfall for it weakened their societies standards and instead of maintaining status as a more sophisticated civilization, they instead fell to the level of the barbarians. This is another tactic by the filmmakers to bring the issue of corruption and discrimination to light for the viewers.

Overall, I think it was a good film and the issues presented were executed well, not only in a filmmaking sense but also in the sense of making it culturally relevant (especially during the time it was released). However, there were other aspects of the film that took away from the underlying messages. I was not very impressed with the performance of Stephen Boyd as Livius, I think there could have been other actors that would have done a better job. The ideals and stoic philosophy that he is supposed to carry with him are not portrayed very well and it limits the connection that viewers can have with him. Also, the entire romance between Livius and Lucilla could have been done better or been completely taken out. It wasn’t very compelling or believable and did nothing to contribute to the underlying messages of the film. If this aspect of the movie was altered I think the audience during this time would have appreciated the film much more.


Works Cited

Crowther, Bosley. “Screen: Romans Versus Barbarians: Spectacles and Melees in ‘Fall of Empire’” New York Times27 Mar. 1964: n. pag. New York Times. The New York Times Company. Web. 4 May 2016.

Dio, Cassius. “Epitome of Book LXXIII.” Roman History. Vol. 9. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1927. N. pag. Roman History by Cassius Dio. University of Chicago. Web. 08 May 2018.

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

“The Fall of the Roman Empire.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 08 May 2018. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058085/

“The Fall of the Roman Empire.” Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango and Flixster, n.d. Web. 04 May. https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/fall_of_the_roman_empire/

“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.

Staff, THR. “’Gladiator’: THR’s 2000 Review.” The Hollywood Reporter, 5 May 2017.

Weiler, A. H. “View from a Local Vantage Point.” New York Times 9 July 1961. Web. 6 May  2018.       https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1961/07/09/118044034.html?pageNumber=        275










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