Nero’s Forgiveness: The depiction of a Tragic Emperor in Nero (2004)

Luke Nicosia (’21) discusses the surprisingly sympathetic portrait of the Roman emperor Nero that emerges from a 2004 film by British Director Paul Cohen released on television in the Imperium series.

Nero is the second installation in the Imperium series; originally planned as a six-film series based on the history of the Roman empire, only five were produced (Winkler, 2017). According to Rave (2003), Nero began as a French enterprise, but due to a lack of interest and funding, Italian and German partners became involved in the project. The German company EOS Entertainment, as well as the Italian company Lux Vide, eventually took over the project (Crew United, “Imperium – Nero (2003)”). By Nero‘s release, eighty percent of the movie was funded, the additional twenty percent to be made up by sales (Rave, 2003). Nero featured actor participation from several countries, namely Britain, Italy, and Germany (Rodriguez, 2003). The production crew, likewise, also represented various European countries. The producer, for example, Jan Mojto was from Slovakia, the director Paul Marcus from Britain, and the assistant director, Fabrizio Castellani, Italian (Rave, 2003).

Publicity poster for Nero: The Decline of an Empire
Publicity image for Nero: The Decline of an Empire

The five films had a budget of 125 million euros–roughly $190,000,000, adjusted for inflation (Rodriguez, 2003). For filming, a remote coastal town by the name of Hemmamet was chosen as a location; starting in 2002, all five movies were filmed there (Winkler, 2017; Rodriguez, 2003). For the interest of saving money, the five films used the same set. Constructed of polystyrene material, it cost 15 million euros alone, and spanned 22,500 square meters– or around 240,000 square feet (Rave, 2003). The buildings were based off ancient Roman structures, but scaled down 33 percent in size (Rave, 2003). I would think that while the set’s consistency shows continuity across the films, the set material design serves to save on construction costs. Filming for Nero began on December 20th, 2003, and ran for eight weeks (Crew United, “Imperium – Nero (2003)”). The film was then produced back to Italy (Winkler 2017). It was subsequently released later in 2004 as a television film (Winkler, 2017). Judging by the lack of scholarly information on the film, it likely did not have a large release.

Plot Synopsis

Nero (2004) begins with a young Nero (James Bentley), his father Domitius (uncredited) and mother Agrippina (Laura Morante) at their estate, located outside of Rome to avoid the wrath of the city’s “cruel master” Caligula (John Simm) (1:36). That night, Tigellinus (Mario Opinato), Caligula’s righthand man, breaks into their house with Praetorians, butchers Domitius in front of Agrippina and Nero (as he hides under his bed). Tigellinus spots the hiding Nero and takes him and Agrippina to Rome. At court, Caligula sadistically offers her a food platter with Domitius’ head on it. Distraught, Agrippina is pressured by Caligula, who holds a knife to Nero’s throat, to confess to taking part in a conspiracy against the emperor. Caligula then asks Porridus (Simón Andreu) and Septimus (Ian Richardson) for recommendations on how to punish her. When the answers they give are insufficient, he banishes Agrippina, and has Burrus (Maurizia Donadoni) escort Nero to his aunt Domitia’s (Ángela Molina) homestead.

At the estate, Nero quickly befriends the slave Apollonius (Philippe Caroit), a former actor, and his young daughter Acte (uncredited). Nero is unable to speak, traumatized by his father’s death. Yet, Apollonius coaxes him to talk by reciting Homer to him. Ten years later, Nero (Hans Matheson), going by “Lucius,” has grown fond of both the slave lifestyle as well as Acte (Rike Schmid). He professes his love to her, and they vow to get engaged. Apollonius forbids it, however, as it would break her heart to love someone of Patrician blood, who is forbidden to marry a freedwoman. In exile, meanwhile, Agrippina visits a soothsayer (Liz Smith), who reveals that Nero will become emperor, but at the price of Agrippina’s murder. Agrippina is left wondering who will kill her as the specter disappears.

In Rome, Caligula is assassinated by his guards at a brothel, and Claudius (Massimo Dapporto) is proclaimed as emperor. He is reluctant to take the throne, but on the urging of his wife Messalina (Sonia Aquino) he obliges. Nero and Acte are plotting to run away to Greece and become musicians, when Tigellinus arrives to bring Nero back to Rome. Wanting to make up for the injustices Nero and his mother–who was also recalled–suffered, Claudius offers anything Nero desires. On Nero’s behalf, Agrippina demands that Seneca (Matthias Habich) be brought back from exile and become his tutor. When Seneca arrives, Agrippina informs him that his duty is to make her son into the ideal emperor. Nero sneaks out that night, and takes Acte to the hills overlooking the city. There, he tells her that they will have to delay their departure plans, as his mother has told him she is in danger and requires Nero to be vigilant on her behalf. He tells her, however, that he plans to ask Claudius if he may be consul of Greece and take her with him.

Nero admits his love for Acte to Seneca, and when Agrippina overhears, she goes to Domitia’s residence and tells the slave she will be one of Nero’s concubines. Agrippina, however, tells Domitia that she must send her to Sardinia immediately. Acte, Apollonius, and Rufus (Marco Bonini), another slave, are on their way to Rome when Domitia’s overseer (uncredited) averts their carriage towards Sardinia. Acte protests this, and a fight between Apollonius and the slave-driver ensues. Apollonius is injured, but Rufus incapacitates the slave-driver. They go to the house of Etius (Jochen Horst), a family friend, where Apollonius later dies of his injuries. At Rome, Messalina sneaks out one night to marry another man. Agrippina, who had heard of Messalina’s odd night behavior, informs Claudius and his Praetorians, who put a stop the ceremony. On Claudius’ orders, Tigellinus kills both Messalina and her new husband. Claudius then marries Agrippina and adopts Nero as his son. To tie the family bond stronger, Claudius demands that Nero marry his daughter Octavia (Vittoria Puccini). Nero rejects the proposal, as he still loves Acte. Agrippina and Seneca, nevertheless force him to do it. After the ceremony, Nero abandons Octavia and runs off to Acte for the night. Octavia later commits suicide on hearing of their engagement.

When Claudius leaves for a military campaign in Brittania, Agrippina takes control of the empire. He returns a year later and sees that Agrippina has been printing her image on the coinage. He confronts her about this and tells her that he has changed his will to designate his epileptic son Britannicus (Francesco Venditti) as his heir. Nero, meanwhile, asks Claudius for the consulship of Greece, part of his plan to run away with Acte. Claudius grants it, but quickly thereafter dies from his poisoned food, perpetrated by Agrippina, who also takes his will. Nero tries to run away, but is caught by Seneca, Tigellinus, and Burrus, who declare him emperor. At first, Nero routinely visits Acte, who lives with Etius. When Octavia becomes upset with this and confronts him, Nero replies that he does not love her and demands that Octavia divorce him. She agrees, faking that she is impotent to get the marriage annulled; Nero subsequently gets engaged to Acte.

At a gladiatorial exhibition, Nero becomes upset with the bloodlust of the audience; responding to the audience’s cries for death, Nero proclaims the installation of the Nuronia, poetic competitions free from blood. At the Senate, Nero proposes that the empire cut taxes, which the Senate almost votes entirely against, which enrages Nero. Enraged, Nero kicks over the voting pots and says that he will implement the changes anyways. much to the dismay of his mother. His mother, dismayed by his actions, begin to plot against him. Tigellinus catches word of their plot and reports this to Nero, who banishes his mother from the palace. This angers his mom, who resorts to using Claudius’ will as leverage. Nero learns of his mother’s new plot and has Britannicus poisoned. Acte finds out his actions and leaves him, running away to her slave friend Claudia (Emanuela Garuccio), who lives with the Christian Paul of Tarsus (Pierre Vaneck).

Without Acte, Nero spirals. He first has his mother killed, feeling that she has made his life hell. Then, he falls in love with and marries the seductive Poppea (Elisa Tovati), who introduces him to hallucinogens and wild partying. When the Senate learns that, they will engage in mock gladiatorial combat at the wedding, Porridus and Septimus bring Burrus, Seneca, and Tigellinus into their conspiracy.  After Tigellinus betrays them again and informs Nero, however, the Senators are murdered, and Seneca is forced to commit suicide. Acte, meanwhile, becomes baptized and becomes a Christian. After asking Domitia for forgiveness, she returns to see Rome burning. After the fire, Nero unveils his plans to rebuild Rome, including the Domus Aurea at its center. Some worry that it makes Nero look responsible for the fire, which leads Poppea and Tigellinus to suggest that they blame the Christians.

At a lyre performance of his, Nero accidentally falls on and kills the pregnant Poppea. He turns to Paul, captured by the Romans and known to perform healing miracles, to save her. Under the threat of death, Paul says he is unable to help her, and it is implied that Paul is later executed. Acte confronts Nero, begging to return to him and for him to spare the Christians. Nero refuses and sends her away, calling her a traitor. Then, when Galba usurps him, Nero barely escapes a traitorous Tigellinus, as well as a mob of Romans who throw rubbish at him. He goes to a river, tosses his diadem in, and slits his wrists. As he dies, Acte finds him, and he asks for her forgiveness, which she grants. Acte cremates his body, and as she lights the pyre, she tells the attendees to “forgive [Nero]” for his crimes (3:09:10).

Background Information According to Ancient Sources

The film Nero is based off the works of Cassius Dio, Suetonius, and Tacitus. The works which give the best account of Nero do not shy away from his faults, of course. Cassius Dio, a historian writing roughly 130 years after Nero’s lifetime, recounts the emperor in his larger anthology, Roman History. As a historian recounting Rome’s entire history, Dio is less specifically targeting Nero in his work, as is suspect with writers who lived contemporarily with the emperor. Dio’s primary intent is to systematically explain Nero’s rule and descent into madness as he does with others. His methodology has its basis on cause-and-effect, how each bad action is the result a prior event. Following the murder of Britannicus, for example, Dio states that “Seneca and Burrus no longer gave any careful attention to the public business [so that they may] preserve their lives. Consequently Nero now openly… proceeded to gratify all his desires” (LXI.7.5 Trans. Cary, 1961). To Dio, Nero’s reputation can be explained through the identification and analysis of such critical moments; it does not suffice him to say just simply if a ruler is bad or not, and an explanation as to why and how is necessary.

Suetonius’ account also comes from a larger work, The Lives of the Caesars. He takes great pleasure in recounting the vices of the emperors ranging from Julius Caesar to Domitian. Suetonius’ discussion on Nero is 57 chapters, one of his more extensive accounts. He attempts to sway the reader one way or the other, giving both the good and the bad. His account, however, is not balanced by any means. While the first nineteen sections deal primarily with Nero’s successes, the remainder discusses his vices and demise, as told through gossip-like anecdotes that pertain to Nero. He recounts, for example, how Nero “castrated the boy Sporus and actually tried to make a woman of him” (28 Trans. Rolfe, 1997). This story is referenced in Dio’s work as well, but it is not a significant point. Suetonius presents such stories not as historical facts, but as gossip that he makes use of to evaluate Nero.

Tacitus’ Annals is more focused on the military and legal matters affecting the empire. While he recounts military campaigns in Britannia and Armenia, Tacitus also spends time discussing accusations made in the Senate and the outcome of their trials. Tacitus is slightly less biased and opinionated than Suetonius; he will include rather damning stories of Nero and his mother, Agrippina, but attributes it to other writers.  He has this to say, for example about Agrippina’s desire for the throne: “According to Cluvius’ account, Agrippina was so far driven by her desire to hold on to power that…she quite often appeared before her inebriated son all dressed up and ready for incestuous relations” (13.2, Trans. Barrett &Yardley, 2008). The story is surely revealing about Agrippina and Nero, yet because Tacitus cites it from the work of another, he does not appear to be a spreader of rumors as Suetonius does. Tacitus does not dwell on negative stories as much, only using such for historical purposes. In comparison to Dio’s work, the Annals function more as a collection of current events than a historiographical account; it is surely far, however, from being a collection of anecdotes, as is Suetonius’ style.

Dio’s narrative portrays Nero as interested in power from the beginning, suppressing his siblings and destroying Claudius’ will (61.2.3). When he acquired his power, it gave Nero the access he needed to make his fantasies a reality. Tacitus, however, blames Agrippina more sternly than the other texts. He says that Agrippina “had long been set on committing the crime, was quick to grasp the opportunity she was offered, and was not short of agents for it” (12.66 Trans. Barrett & Yardley, 2008). Tacitus then admits that in the earlier years of Nero’s reign, she executed dissidents on Nero’s behalf (13.1). Agrippina, therefore, is at fault for the misdeeds which occurred in the early years of Nero’s reign. Nero becomes more responsible for his crimes, however, when his mother, Seneca and Burrus lose influence over his behavior. Nero most closely resembles Tacitus’ rendition more than the other remaining two texts. The film, from the beginning of Nero’s ascension to the throne, Agrippina motivates and manipulates an unwilling Nero into becoming emperor. As Nero becomes more comfortable as a ruler, however, he relies less on his mother, and soon turns on her thereafter.

The film, however, heavily deviates from the ancient source material. Nero’s father, Domitius, is shown as a loving and caring father, but according to Suetonius, Domitius was “a man hateful in every walk of life” (6 Trans. Rolfe, 1997). Domitius did not seem to love his son either, saying that he and Agrippina were too evil to give birth to a noble child (6). He had died of dropsy, furthermore, instead of being murdered by Caligula, when Nero was three (6). According to the film, Nero is seven when he witnesses his father’s murder, subsequently spends ten years on Domitia’s farm, and finally takes the throne at seventeen. Much attention is also given as to how the family is depicted as close-knitted. Nero’s death, furthermore, did not occur at the side of a river, by slitting his wrists, or with Acte present. After being declared an enemy by the Senate, Nero committed suicide in the home of one of his freemen; when he failed die, his freedman helped finish the job (Suetonius, 49). The timing of events is altered to make Nero more pitiable, once an innocent boy who witnessed the brutal murder of his father, who later fell into darkness

The depiction of Nero’s beginning and end also helps to focus on Acte and Nero’s lifelong relationship. Acte was not as significant to the emperor’s life as Nero suggests. While Acte is seldom mentioned in the ancient sources, it is known that Nero did have a strong infatuation with her (Dio, 61.7.1). Yet, she is recurrent throughout Nero’s life, from his traumatized childhood to his death. Nero‘s romantic facet, in short, avoids commenting on the sexual controversies surrounding Nero. While the film portrays his libidinous relationship with Poppea, critics did not appreciate how Nero’s sexual proclivities were excluded (Gradyharp. “Another in the Series of Imperium – Nero’s Life Tidied Up A Lot). The emperor was accustomed to having more than one bedfellow as once, including Sporus, who he utilized for his own personal fantasies (Dio, 63.13.2). Stories such as these are excluded for two reasons: it blemishes Nero’s character, as well as that of the movie, beyond repair. The presence of Christian teachings and characters throughout the film suggest that Acte and Nero’s romance is portraying the ideal Christian relationship. While ancient sources do not comment on Acte’s faith, the movie chronicles her transformation into one. A film that has its basis in spreading Christian teachings, therefore, ought to avoid such sacrilegious topics.

Recurrent Themes and Analysis

Nero is striking in its portrayal of the emperor, as it breaks from all older conventions. Famous movies such as Quo Vadis? (1951) portray Nero as a pagan tyrant that trounces the morally superior Christianity (Blanshard & Shahabudin, 2011, p. 41).  A film also worthy of note is the 1981 comedy History of the World, Part I, where Nero is described as a piggish glutton interested in dining and bathing in treasure (Cyrino, 2009, p. 204). These films draw more heavily on Nero’s vices, as described by ancient sources, and put it at the forefront of his character. Nero, however, humanizes him to an extent that other films do not. Nero first comes across as a misunderstood musician, who has the simple interests of running away to Greece with Acte (Dahm, 2009, p. 5). He has no interest in taking power at first and is forced onto the throne instead. He later succumbs to corruption, however, losing the innocence he was previously presented with having.

The contrast between Nero’s early and later years is but a struggle between good and evil, corruption and innocence, moral and immoral. Nero’s childhood, his “good” is made evident by his sympathetic portrayal. When Nero is sent to Domitia’s residence, he is not referred to as Nero, but as Lucius, “the bringer of light,” by Apollonius (15:26-15:36). The film takes Nero’s praenomen literally in this case, as throughout the film he is depicted as void of all vices. This depiction heavily contrasts with that of Tigellinus. As an assassin, he is always dressed in a dark black uniform throughout the film, giving the audience the impression that he is a sinister character and surely clashes against the “bringer of light.” Tigellinus, however, embodies evil in its purest form. His purpose, as exhibited throughout the film, is to murder on the orders of the emperor. His loyalty too is questionable, as he clearly has his own self-interests. While he is loyal to the emperor he serves, his loyalty only lasts until his own interests no longer ally with the interests of the emperor. He is complicit in the deaths of Caligula, Claudius, and eventually attempts to kill Nero himself, and in this way embodies the evilest nature of the empire.

With this good and evil contrast evident in the film, certain characters undergo a change from light to dark, or from “dark” to light. Agrippina, at first, is a simple loving mother, yet she ends up manipulating others into get her son to rule. Domitius’ murder serves as a critical changing point, as it spurs Agrippina’s need for security. She convinces Nero to forego his plans to run away to protect her from the “vipers” in Rome that threaten her life (42:59-43:30). Security, however, becomes skewed with the vision she receives while in exile. She first spies on and has Messalina killed for her infidelity, subsequently marrying Claudius; then, while Claudius is in Britain, she mints money of her own likeness; later, she instructs Seneca to shape her son Nero into the model emperor; and when Claudius changes his will to have Britannicus succeed him, she has him poisoned. Everything she does in this case is solely to get Nero onto the throne, yet her actions are immoral. The film attempts to portray Agrippina as having been corrupted through her good intentions. By wanting security, each action serves as a slippery slope to the next. Even when Nero is atop the throne, she continues to scheme.

Agrippina’s demise seems to reflect onto Nero as well. At first, Nero is against the bloodthirsty nature of Rome. At the gladiator games, for example, Nero is appalled by the audience’s call for the death of a gladiator (1:46:40-1:49:52). On his announcement of the Nuronia, which he wishes to be free of any bloodshed, Porridus comments that with the bloodless games, “he’s lost [the audience],” as they wish for blood. The contrast between Nero’s ideal empire and the state of the actual one is further contrasted when Nero proposes his first reform: tax cuts. When he proposes this idea to the Senate, however, a senator hysterically questions “you want to lower taxes?”  (1:02:59-1:03:14). The line speaks for the nature of the Senators, therefore; by opposing what many audience members would view positively, the Senate becomes synonymous with selfish elites that care nothing for other people. It may also serve to comment on the ancient sources and explain their inherent bias against Nero. When the Senate votes almost unanimously against him, Nero oversteps then and institutes these changes anyways. This is the beginning of Nero’s fall from grace, as while he has good intentions, it does not reflect well on his character, just as his mother early on had good intentions which later became not so. Nero’s character shift is best summarized with his line to Acte: “Lucius to you, Nero to the world” (1:39:39). The child that was Lucius now grows thin, while the bureaucratic Nero grows stronger.

Acte serves as Nero’s moral compass throughout the movie, keeping “Lucius” around while “Nero” in check. He is increasingly pressured by others, however, to do immoral deeds. At Agrippina’s urging does Nero take the throne, yet when she begins to lose control of him, she turns on him. His taking of the throne is with good intentions, as he hopes to make a better world by ruling. His dream fails to become a reality, however, when he realizes that people plot against him. At Seneca’s urging, however, Nero has Britannicus killed to take away her leverage against him (2:04:40). Acte’s subsequent departure following learning of Nero’s crime only adds to his descent into madness. Without Acte, his moral compass, Nero’s character devolves into unbridled madness. He is seduced by the titillating seductress Poppea, who introduces him to powerful narcotics and unrestrained debauchery (2:30:30-2:31:09). The scene of Nero and Poppea’s marriage to her serves as a comparison to this shift, as while the scene is slow and festive, it is blurry, off-kilter, and bizarre, mimicking his drug-fueled escapade with Poppea in the prior scene (2:38:35-2:40:36). It flashes back and forth with the jovial wedding procession to the brutal murders of Septimus and Porridus. The contrast seems to indicate that Nero takes delight in the thought of death, best summarized by how he sadistically smiles when he tells Seneca to commit suicide (2:41:11). Nero, who had previously proclaimed to never shed blood for his namesake, has stooped to a point where he will kill as he pleases.

After departing from Nero, Acte too undergoes a character change, only this time her demeanor improves. When she learns of Nero’s murder of Britannicus, she runs away from the keep, leaving Nero and their engagement (2:15:00). Here, Acte is unable to forgive Nero for his misdeeds.  He teaches her about the Christian teachings of forgiveness and piety, and ultimately motivates her to save a Nero “falling into darkness” (2:27:36). Having learned to accept the Christian ethic, Acte, dressed in humble rags just as she was with Nero when she was a working slave, approaches an ornately dressed Nero and asks to return to his life and that he spare the Christians. She is nonetheless unfazed when Nero simply admits to her that “I am lost” and sends her away (3:01:14). Acte’s transformation is more indicative on the moral of the film as a whole. Nero and Agrippina both find themselves in a pagan Rome that idolizes greed, bloodshed, and disloyalty. Being invested in this realm too long causes a character’s downfall. Yet Acte, who goes to Christianity, finds herself improved instead of corrupted. Even though she is wronged by Nero at the end, Acte reminds the audience in her final line about the Christian ethic: “let us forgive him, as we hope to be forgiven” (3:08:44-3:09:20). The moral superiority of the Christian faith, paired with the tale of Nero’s corruption, illustrates that Nero was not always terrible and deserves pity for his fate.

The film does not execute this moral well, however. While the set’s absence of technology and style–an obvious nod to earlier sword and sandal films–is praise-worthy, dialogue delivery in many instances ruined the immersion of the film. Agrippina’s first line to Domitius is worthy of note, as her dialogue seems flat and ingenuine (1:19). Such scenes took away from the overall effectiveness of the film. While some actors proved to be rather powerful in their portrayals– such as John Simm’s portrayal of the insane Caligula– the lackluster acting of others ruin some pivotal moments of the film.  Britannicus (2:11:45) and Claudius’ (1:30:22) death scenes are accompanied by one member of the cast uttering “he is dead” in an emotionless tone, which I found to be detracting to the gravity of the situation. Emotional scenes such as these were poorly executed in the film.

With a run-time of nearly three hours, Nero is far too long; the length is avoidable, however, as certain scenes are purposelessly elongated. Scenes such as Nero and Agrippina’s reunion last too long and are absent of any meaningful or inventive dialogue (37:30-20:22). The scene is hallmarked by somber violin music while one or two characters shed tears. The effectiveness of this trope, however, is lessened by its frequency (Gotan girl, “Recommended for Madness and Intrigue but there’s a Sap Alert”). At least a dozen similar scenes occur in different parts of the film, and while the purpose is to obviously coax an emotional response from the audience, the repetition of the trope ultimately lessens its effectiveness. The overdramatization of a challenging film idea proved incredibly obnoxious. The film’s deviation from the standard treatment of Nero truly makes the film stand out. Yet, due to underperformance, repetitive dramatic clichés and drawn out romantic scenes, the movie is not effective in conveying Nero’s downfall.


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Cleopatra (1963)

The sexualization of Cleopatra in Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1963 screen epic does scant justice to Cleopatra’s political stature and acumen, argues Isabella Jurcisin (’20)

Plot Outline

Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Cleopatra (1963)
Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Cleopatra (1963)



The film opens with Julius Caesar, played by the esteemed Rex Harrison, looking down upon the lifeless bodies of soldiers after the bloody Battle of Pharsalus. This battle had been an excellent victory as Caesar had just defeated Pompey the Great. Pompey escapes to Egypt where he will try to find new resources in the hands of Cleopatra VII and her brother Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII. Therefore, Caesar decides to make his way to Alexandria leaving Marc Antony, his closest friend, in charge of Rome as he travels to protect Rome’s wheat. As Caesar reaches the port of Alexandria the audience is given a birds eye view of the majestic blue of the ocean and the busy markets down below. As Caesar arrives, young Ptolemy his waiting for him along with his advisors hoping that Caesar and his men will make fools of themselves by being brutal towards the Egyptians within the marketplace. Caesar, being a savvy leader, realizes this and tells his right-hand man Rufio, played by Martin Landau, that he will make his way through the market to the Egyptian Pharaoh by buying things. As Caesar arrives to meet young Ptolemy, played by Richard O’Sullivan, we see he is being managed by his regent, Pothinus, and other members of the Egyptian Court. The Egyptian Court consists of Theodotus, his tutor, and Achillas, the head of his armies. The members of the court glisten in gold clothing, exuding wealth. When Caesar asks of Cleopatra’s whereabouts, Ptolemy responds that she is dead as a consequence of trying to murder him. Pothinus clarifies the situation by stating that though Cleopatra had tried to kill Ptolemy she was not dead and had fled the city. Caesar responds that he has come to Egypt to resolve the civil war that has been created due to animosity between the siblings, as Rome was named their guardian after their father had died. Ptolemy, hoping to gain Caesar’s favor, presents him with the ring and head of Pompey. Caesar is visibly disturbed but hides it as he knows the Egyptian court is watching. Caesar states he will stay in the palace and asks Rufio to give Pompey proper burial rites.

Caesar makes himself at home in the palace and as he is preparing Rome’s military in case they are attacked, Flavius (George Cole) also Caesar’s dedicated servant, notifies Caesar that a rug merchant has arrived with a gift from Cleopatra. Caesar tells his fellow officers to leave him and Apollodorus, played by Cesare Danova and Cleopatra’s devoted servant, strides in with a large rolled carpet. As Apollodorus gently puts down the carpet on the floor out rolls Cleopatra. Cleopatra, played by the beautiful Elizabeth Taylor, immediately discusses with Caesar of how he must make her sole ruler. Caesar and Cleopatra begin loudly arguing over Cleopatra’s position and through this scene we see sparks flying as mutual attraction grows between them. Cleopatra acknowledges with severity in her voice that she knows that Caesar was disturbed by the decapitation of Pompey. Caesar recollects with sadness in his voice that Pompey’s ring was a gift from his wife, Caesar’s daughter Julia. Cleopatra leaves with more knowledge of the infamous Caesar. Suspiciously, Cleopatra spies on Caesar through a work of art and hears him describing infamous stories of Cleopatra’s personality and sexual endeavors. After Caesar’s advisors leave, she sees Caesar have a seizure and is visibly shaken. Cleopatra later asks her tutor, Sosigenes, about the seizures and what the illness entails. Cleopatra begins to have romantic feelings for the esteemed leader and knowing he is coming to see her, ensures he sees her bathing completely naked with only a thin blanket covering her. During this meeting Cleopatra notifies Caesar that her brother’s army will outnumber him soon and surround the palace. Visibly flustered by Cleopatra’s beauty and strong personality, Caesar heeds her advice and begins to burn the Egyptian fleet. Unfortunately, the fire spreads to nearby buildings including the historical Library of Alexandria. Cleopatra, a known intellect, is furious by this and confronts Caesar. They begin a ferocious battle with words, with Cleopatra calling Caesar a barbarian, and Caesar silencing her with a passionate kiss. Caesar leaves and defeats the Egyptians fleet.

The next day, Cleopatra is almost poisoned by a servant and in retaliation, forces the servant to drink the poison. Later, Caesar hosts a trial and Pothinus is sentenced to death and Ptolemy and Theodotus are sent to join the army, a path that will most likely end in death. After this, Cleopatra tries to speak to Caesar but he is visibly ill and asks her to leave. Cleopatra, having spied on him before knows he is about to have a seizure. She saves him and they share a moment of intimacy with Caesar expressing his fears and Cleopatra comforting him. Later, Cleopatra is crowned sole ruler of Egypt and even Caesar bows before her which brings discomfort to his fellow Romans. Cleopatra then shows Caesar Egypt and all its glories. In the next scene, Cleopatra discusses with Caesar her desire for them to work together in order to fulfill the goals of Alexander the Great. After this, they are seen in bed where Cleopatra talks of how she is a real woman who can give Caesar a son, unlike his current wife who is barren, and they make love. When Caesar learns that Cleopatra is pregnant he is overjoyed; this contrasts the response of the Roman Senate who are weary when hearing that Cleopatra and Caesar are having a child and have married. Mark Antony, played by Richard Burton, is seen trying to quench the fears of Caesar’s wife Calpurnia as she hears of the romance between Caesar and Cleopatra. As Cleopatra is about to give birth she commands her servant to lay her son at Caesar’s feet in front of his advisors after he is born hoping that Caesar will acknowledge him publicly. Caesar does just this and the Romans see the vision Caesar has for the future of Rome through his son Caesarion. After this, we see the Roman senate discussing the birth of the child with Brutus announcing he is happy for Caesar and Octavian, played by Roddy McDowall, purposefully keeping his thoughts quiet. Caesar leaves Egypt and three years pass until Caesar is finally named “dictator for life” and asks Cleopatra to join him in Rome.

Cleopatra arrives in Rome with a show of dancers, gold, and soldiers in front of her. She and her son Caesarion are on a throne atop a massive sphinx emulating wealth and royalty. Cleopatra is seen wearing gold from her headpiece to her shoes, showing Rome just how powerful she is. The crowds welcome this wealth with screams and shouts of appreciation. Caesar comments on the stature of his son while Marc Antony has his eyes glued to the beautiful queen. The Roman Senate begrudgingly rise for her arrival and Cleopatra and her son bow before Caesar. As Cleopatra resides in Rome, Caesar spends time with his son and also hopes to be made emperor. The senate disapproves of this, begins to see Caesar as a radical tyrant, and comes to the conclusion that they must kill him. As Caesar is notified they have made a decision on his title he leaves Cleopatra who is left with the notion she might never see him again. Caesar arrives at the meeting and is brutally stabbed. After this, Cleopatra and Caesarion escape Rome with the help of Marc Antony who states that this will not be the last time they will see each other.

In the second part of the film Marc Antony is seen leading a successful war against those who killed Julius Caesar. As Antony is cheered by his fellow Romans, a sickly Octavian, hears the news of his rival’s victory. Antony comes to Octavian and they decide to divide conquered lands amongst prominent Roman leaders. This agreement leads to Octavian having control of Italy and Antony control of the East. Atony then comes up with a plan to move against Parthia; unfortunately, Rufio reminds him they are running low on supplies and money. Rufio hints at Antony at who could be the solution to their problem: Cleopatra. Antony is angered by this but begrudgingly agrees to meet her, so he has Rufio summon her. Yet, Cleopatra states she will only meet him on Egyptian soil. Later, Antony meets her on the most decadent of ships and they discuss finances while it is extremely obvious Antony yearns for Cleopatra romantically. Antony is constantly seen looking at the golden necklace of coins with Caesar’s face on them that Cleopatra adorns around her neck. This makes Atony extremely jealous, however through a passionate conversation they later have sex. As these two lovers fall more deeply in love, Octavian has taken up the legacy of Caesar and is threatening companions of Antony. Therefore, Antony is forced to leave Egypt and Cleopatra and return to Rome. In order to divide Cleopatra and Antony, Octavian offers his sister as wife to Antony. In order to portray the image of a “true Roman” Antony is forced to accept, however, when Cleopatra hears of this she is infuriated. Later, Antony arrives in Egypt and is forced to kneel before her in public. Cleopatra demands that with a new treaty Rome must give Egypt a third of their conquered lands. After this, they speak privately and Cleopatra demands that Antony marry her and abandon his wife. Antony agrees to this union and Octavian uses this and Antony’s will which states he be buried in Alexandria to turn the Roman Senate against Antony. To the Roman senate this is a clear rejection of his Roman roots and with Octavian as their leader they go to war. Antony’s rejection of his Roman roots is again seen when he dismisses his officers and takes his soldiers to fight over sea instead of land which they are used to fighting on. As Antony sails farther away from Cleopatra we can see him make his way to the ship with Octavian’s insignia on it. Unfortunately, he is trapped between enemy ships and due to the fire that blazes the ships Cleopatra is told he is dead. All Antony sees is Cleopatra sailing away from him and he is visibly hurt fortunately, by jumping onto a nearby boat he is able to make his way back to Cleopatra’s ship.

After Cleopatra abandons Antony nothing is quite the same between them as Antony harbors animosity towards Cleopatra for forcing him to abandon his men. Octavian sends a delegation to Egypt asking Cleopatra to send the head of Marc Antony in return for peace between Rome and Egypt. Yet, Cleopatra states she will not give Marc Antony over to Octavian. Marc Antony overhears this, yet, still states that he is dead inside to which Cleopatra slaps him repeatedly across the face. Marc Antony enraged slaps her back with such force she falls to the ground. Cleopatra is able to reach him when she states how much she loves him. The next scene, is Antony and Rufio getting ready for battle. We see Octavian tell his advisor that he will take Antony and Cleopatra alive. Unfortunately, due to lack of resources Antony’s men abandon him and he rides back to Cleopatra. Sadly, he believes that Cleopatra has abandoned him again and he falls on his sword believing he has no other choice. Antony is taken to where Cleopatra is hiding and dies in the arms of the love of his life. Octavian is made aware that Antony is dead and is ecstatic. He then searches for Cleopatra, curious to see this enigma of a woman, and tells her she can rule Egypt as a province of Rome as long as she accompanies him to Rome first. She sees Octavian wearing the ring of Pompey and immediately knows her son Caesarion is dead. She makes a series of empty promises to Octavian and later makes the arrangements to kill herself. She puts her hand in a basket and a poisonous snake bites her; Cleopatra dies and her final word is, “Antony”.


Ancient Background

Cleopatra has been recreated in many forms through a list of influential films in the last few decades. In the film Cleopatra (1963) Elizabeth Taylor portrays Cleopatra as sexy, strong, and enamored by powerful men. Historically, Cleopatra was many of those things but as she was a queen she was born with great power. Many historical sources state she was not particularly beautiful, which does not align with Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal as she is stereotypically gorgeous. Taylor as well does nothing to downplay her stereotypical beauty but instead wears eye makeup that accentuates her eyes and dresses that outline her curves. Historically, as Cleopatra was not particularly beautiful she relied on her skills of persuasion. Historian, Plutarch, alludes to this and states, “Her beauty, so we are told, was not itself outstanding; it did not immediately strike those who saw her; yet being with her had an inescapable hold; when talking with her, she was persuasive, and the character which surrounded her whole manner in company had a force to it.” This proves that there was much more to Cleopatra than just “physical appearances”. She was also a known intellect who was the first member of her family to speak the local language in order to better communicate with her citizens. (Kleiner 2009:27)

In the film, Cleopatra’s characteristics are shown through her interactions with her male counterparts. The film is divided into two parts: her relationship with Julius Caesar and later Marc Antony. Yet, in the film they forget that Cleopatra married her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, whom she brought to Rome when she stayed in Caesar’s house. In the film, this was not shown in order to fully concentrate on her relationship with Caesar. The reason Cleopatra felt the need to ally herself to these powerful men was because she felt her brothers did not have the qualities to assert themselves as rulers. The key word being “ally” she did not need them to overshadow her. One of the most prominent moments in the film, was when Caesar declared Cleopatra sole ruler of Egypt. This is historically inaccurate as Cleopatra was co-ruler with her younger brother Ptolemy XIV. In the film, this moment represents Cleopatra seeing the world and future that Caesar can help give her. Historically, however, Cleopatra was said to have poisoned her younger brother in order to become sole ruler. This proves that Cleopatra did not need a man to assist her in gaining power within her own country. (Kleiner 2009: 85)

When creating Cleopatra’s relationship with Mark Atony it seems Mankiewicz was trying to portray Cleopatra as manipulative and in multiple scenes had her constantly comparing Antony to Caesar. This is not historically accurate, as Cleopatra did not continually compare the two, yes, they were both prominent Roman men (Kleiner 2009: 104-106); but, Caesar was older and extremely dedicated to his aspirations, while, Antony was younger, enjoyed partying, and was often compared with the Greek god Dionysus: god of wine. This tension between Cleopatra was further highlighted as the film aptly left out the births of Antony and Cleopatra’s three children: Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene, and Ptolemy Philadelphus (Kleiner 2009: 25). Without mentioning these three children the film was able to focus more on the dramatic relationship between Antony and Cleopatra. This was a consequence of Cleopatra constantly reminding Antony of Caesarian. If the film had brought in these three children Cleopatra’s main romantic relationships would have been more comparable and on equal footing. Therefore, Cleopatra wouldn’t have had to spend the last scenes of the film trying to convince Antony to love her but to remind him that her empire was in danger (3:90). By leaving out these three children the film focalized more on Antony and his fear of being overshadowed by Caesar. Therefore, taking away from the main character: Cleopatra.


Techniques, Production, Reception

The beginning of the long convoluted story that is the production of Cleopatra began when Walter Wanger started as a producer in October 1958 at Twentieth Century Fox (Klawans 1998). When Wanger gave his idea of “Cleopatra” to the studio, they gave him a budget of between $1 million and $3 million. As they searched for a director they looked towards “big names” such as Alfred Hitchcock, who rejected the offer, and finally settled on Rouben Mamoulian. The actors hired for leading characters such as Marc Antony and Caesar were Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd. Wanger desired to have Elizabeth Taylor and refused any other actresses yet her proposed salary was much too high for the film’s budget. The studio’s executives agreed to pay Taylor $1 million. In the middle of the year 1959, the studio agreed they would save money in building the set in London instead of the Fox lot. In September 28, 1960 shooting of the film started in chilly London and still “Cleopatra” had no script. Various drafts for the script had been rejected and Wanger asked for a fourth writer. To add to the turmoil, Elizabeth had caught pneumonia and was said to have been near death, therefore, production was forced to leave London and move to Rome (Cyrino 2005: 139). These constant location changes forced the budget to rise. Taylor also pleaded with Wanger to hire Joseph Mankiewicz, as director, whom she had worked with in a previous film and who she said had earned her an Oscar nomination (KLawans 1998). Mankiewicz was an independent filmmaker and took full control of the film–script and all. He chose the book “The Life and Times of Cleopatra” by C.M. Franzero as the basis of his script (Cyrino 2005: 140). Finally, on September, 1961 the film again began shooting, to the studio’s misfortune, only 10 and ½ minutes had been filmed and $7 million had been spent (Klawans 1998). Mankiewicz hired new actors to play Caesar and Antony, these actors being, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton. Mankiewicz strayed from Wanger’s original idea and wrote Cleopatra as more of a “freudian drama”. As if this production could not have had much worse luck, during the filming of the iconic scene where Cleopatra enters Rome, the animals Mankiewicz had hired proved to be unruly and the weather was treacherous. Therefore, production had to be pushed to the spring. Yet, Mankiewicz did not cut down his sets and in the Cinecittá Studios in Rome he had the Forum reconstructed. This scene construction alone cost $1 million. Along with the extra costs of these complex sets Cleopatra’s “costumes and wigs (thirty) and jewelry (125) pieces cost more than $130,000” (Solomon 1995: 70). Another calamity to add to the list was when Taylor and Burton’s affair had been leaked.  After the affair had been publicized Burton and Taylor made no effort to hide it as they were often seen in public together. As both of these actors had their own respective marriages, television host Ed Sullivan “denounced them on his show for their ‘appalling impropriety’” (Cyrino 2005: 140). On top of this, it was said that Burton tried to restore his marriage; unfortunately, this hit Taylor very hard and she was admitted into a hospital. Burton stated to publicists, “I’ve had affairs before… How was I supposed to know she was so f–king famous?” (Klawans 1998). This only led the fire to grow and in June of 1962 Wanger was fired and Fox president Spyros Skouras resigned. Fortunately, this was great publicity for the film as the public wanted to see the real-life couple on screen. The production added up to be a colossal $33 million.

The reception of the film was mixed for many applauded the acting of Rex Harrison who many felt did justice to the revered Julius Caesar. Solomon discusses the faults in the editing of the film such as the “thinness” of Elizabeth Taylor’s voice (Solomon 1995: 30). Taylor herself noticed this and asked if she could redub some scenes but because of the already costly film the studio declined. Since the film had been lengthy the studio felt forced to cut it down, therefore, removing critical scenes which Mankiewicz argued made Richard look like a bad actor for his Antony was shown as “weak.” The Hollywood Reporter applauded Elizabeth acting stating the actor’s beauty had never shined that brightly before. They also stated that Rex Harrison’s Caesar was, “crisp, humorous, and authoritative.” This position was agreed by many as Harrison won the best actor award from the National Board of Review and also received nominations from the Academy and the New York Film Critics (Solomon 1995: 71). The magazine Variety was not as kind to Taylor criticizing her for not pulling off the character of “child-queen.” They also criticized Burton for not fully delving into Antony’s “hero” persona calling Burton overweight and further stating the weakest scenes were between him and Elizabeth.

In the end, the film Cleopatra, many would say, was not worth the cost or the trouble. Twentieth Century Fox sued Taylor and Burton for all the trouble they had caused through publicity (Klawans 1998). Due to the length of the film and the terrible editing most critics ripped it apart leading to it suffering at the box office (Solomon 1995: 75). Positively, it did win four Academy Awards and the television station, ABC, showed the film twice on TV (Klawans 1998). Therefore, all the capital the studio spent did not go to waste.


Themes and Interpretation


The film Cleopatra has a list of extremely complex characters, therefore, there are a variety of themes within it. The theme of love and what it manipulate a person to do is prevalent throughout the film as both Marc Antony and Caesar leave their wives for Cleopatra. This manipulation can prove to have drastic impacts. This can be seen as Marc Antony even dissociates himself from the Romans to align with Cleopatra and goes to war against them. Another theme is jealousy and what it can make great men do, this specifically seen in relation to Marc Antony who constantly lives in the shadow of Caesar and constantly second guesses himself in relation to Cleopatra’s love for him.

The most important theme, I believe, is the idea of the “female leader” and what that entails. In this film Cleopatra is overly sexualized, constantly overshadowed by her male counterparts, and treated like a child. Cleopatra, historically, was an intelligent young woman who studied architecture and helped construct buildings in order for ordinary life to be easier for citizens (Kleiner 2009: 68). She was very strong and had gained the following of thousands. This film was weak in the way it portrayed Cleopatra. This is first seen when she starts falling in love with Caesar. In the film, when Cleopatra is aware Caesar is coming to see her she makes sure she is seen “bathing” which equates to her being naked with only a thin sheet to cover her (:34). Caesar is obviously taken aback as she is beautiful but as they fight over Ptolemy’s army the camera seems to focus on Taylor holding the sheet over her body revealing a huge proportion of her breasts. This over sexualization and the focus of the camera takes away from the importance of this scene which is how Cleopatra may lose her stability as ruler (:34).  Instead, the audience is focusing on the romance that is building between Caesar and Cleopatra. In a later scene, when Cleopatra has just been notified that the Library of Alexandria is burning she runs to confront Caesar who had set the fire (:41). This action on Cleopatra’s part is noble for she is fighting for something she has invested in: literary works. Historically, she was known to speak various languages and was extremely well read. Yet, before we see her enter Caesar’s room she is seen shouting, “Take your hands off me!” (:41). She is then carried in by a guard like a scorned child. This is no way for a queen to act or be treated, specifically, one as strong and intelligent as her. They are using her to juxtapose Caesar who is revered and strong. This is disheartening for she is one of the strongest female leaders in history. Later, as they are disputing the qualities of Romans, Caesar silences Cleopatra with a kiss (:43). This kiss for Caesar and Cleopatra is sealing their partnership to work together. It is hard for me to believe that such an astute and perceptive woman such as Cleopatra couldn’t have calmly discussed her reservations with Caesar. This would have given much more to Cleopatra’s character further proving that she is not just a beautiful heated queen but a pragmatic ruler.

Female leaders, Cleopatra and Hypatia, are portrayed drastically different but still have some similarities. Cleopatra is constantly seen in tight dresses, revealing her breasts and her hourglass figure (2:33) This contrasts how mathematician and philosopher, Hypatia, is represented in the film Agora. Hypatia is seen with little to no makeup on and in loose white dresses (:26). In moments of tension she is calm and practical often with tranquil expressions when others are yelling (:27). She is quite emotional but in a deeper and less superficial way than Cleopatra who when angered cannot seem to control herself. Therefore, if one was to choose between these two as a leader, a rational person would choose Hypatia who is less driven by her emotions and more by pragmatism. It also further proves that for a “female leader” to be seen as strong and beautiful she does not have to be sexualized constantly. In comparison, however, in both films these powerful female leaders are silenced by some sort of sexual act. As mentioned before, Cleopatra was arguing with Caesar over the Library of Alexandria which later leads to Caesar alluding that Cleopatra must obey his will (:43). Caesar then silences Cleopatra with a passionate kiss. This aligns with a scene in Agora where after the Christians had laid ruin to Hypatia’s library, Hypatia is seen gathering scrolls she had saved. Out of the corridor comes her slave, Davus, who had always been in love with her and silences her by kissing her body (:56). While, in Hypatia’s case this is clear sexual assault. It further enforces the idea that “female leaders” can only be silenced by sexual acts and need to be tamed by men. Instead of having a battle of wits and intellect it instead must be something physical. Therefore, I believe the weakest part of the film Cleopatra is the constant sexualization of Cleopatra and the concentration of the strength of her male counterparts instead of focalizing on her strength and intellect.

This film as Mankiewitz wanted to make it a “Freudian drama” fits well with genre of dramatic love stories (Klawans 1998). The constant back and forth between Caesar and Cleopatra in the beginning of the film leads the audience wanting more. The film has passionate love, death, and betrayal. These qualities are imperative to dramas. As I focused on the themes of “female leaders” it is important to understand that during this time women were constantly sexualized in film, as Cleopatra was in this film. Contrasting the film to Agora, I believe, helps us see how far we have come in film and how filmmakers feel compelled to represent women.



Amenábar Alejandro, et al. Agora. Newmarket Films, 2009.

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


Jon Solomon, author. 1995. “In the Wake of “Cleopatra”: The Ancient World in the Cinema since 1963.” The Classical Journal no. 2: 113. JSTOR Journals, EBSCOhost.

Klawans, Stuart. “Hollywood’s Fabulous Follies.” [“making of Cleopatra”]. Newsweek, vol. 131,

15 July 1998, p. 108. EBSCOhost.

Kleiner, Diana E. E. Cleopatra and Rome. [Electronic Resource]. Cambridge : Harvard

University Press., 2009. Academic Complete (Ebook Central). EBSCOhost.

Mankiewicz, Joseph L., director. Cleopatra. Twentieth Century Fox, 1963.

The Hollywood Reporter Staff. “’Cleopatra’: THR’s 1963 Review.” The Hollywood Reporter, The Hollywood Reporter, 7 Dec. 2014.

The Variety Staff. “Cleopatra.” Variety, Variety Media, 1 Jan. 1963.

Mankiewicz, Joseph L., director. Cleopatra. Twentieth Century Fox, 1963.

Faith and Spectacle: Examining Quo Vadis (1951)

Claire Jeantheau (’21) argues that Quo Vadis is part well-intentioned message on religious devotion, part reflection of an era of global conflict, and part entirely empty spectacle.

In Rome for the filming of Quo Vadis, Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr and director Mervyn LeRoy take a tour of the Colosseum
In Rome for the filming of Quo Vadis, Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr and director Mervyn LeRoy take a tour of the Colosseum

It is 64 AD, and Rome’s 14th Legion is returning home on the Appian Way after fighting against an uprising in Britain, led by commander Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor). They are stopped from entering the city by a member of the emperor Nero’s praetorian guard, who has orders to make them remain outside. Marcus, irritated, decides to confront Nero himself at his palace. The emperor (Peter Ustinov) is in the middle of composing a song, seeking advice from, among others, his closest friend Petronius (Leo Genn). Fearing his criticism, they praise him as a god and offer deliberately vague suggestions. When Marcus enters, he learns that Nero wants to wait for the 14th Legion unite with other returning groups for a triumph; in the meantime, he’ll be staying in the home of retired general Aulus Plautius. As they exit, Petronius complains to Marcus about Nero and the declining state of Rome. When Marcus asks if it’s true that Nero has killed his mother and wife and married a “harlot,” Petronius quiets him, saying that in “the language of privileged government”, they “were removed for the good of the empire.”
At Plautius’s house, Marcus and his soldiers catch sight of muscleman Ursus (Buddy Baer) while bathing. Marcus inquires whether he’s a gladiator, and Ursus responds that “It is a sin to kill,” much to the amusement of the soldiers. While walking in the garden, Marcus sees Lygia (Deborah Kerr) for the first time. He is instantly taken with her beauty and tries to attract her by quoting poetry at her, but she rebukes him. Marcus assumes that she is a slave, but learns from Plautius (Felix Aylmer) and his wife Pomponia (Nora Swinburne) at dinner that night that she is their adopted daughter. She was saved as a child from the Roman-conquered territory of Lygia, and Ursus acts as her protector. The meal is interrupted by the arrival of Paul of Tarsus (Abraham Sofaer), which Lygia’s family has been eagerly awaiting. He introduces himself to Marcus as first a rabbi, and then, seeing his confusion, as one who “teaches philosophy”. When Marcus leaves to check his men, Paul is safe to reveal his identity as a Christian, and bring the news that Peter, one of Jesus’s original disciples, will soon be coming to Rome. Marcus finds Lygia again in the garden, drawing the Christian icthys in the sand; he tries to appeal to her with talk of the upcoming triumph, but she is disgusted by his remarks. That night, she prays that he will come to Christ and set an example for others.

On the day of the triumphal procession, Marcus leads the armies as conquering commander after rites conducted by the Vestal Virgins praising the Roman gods and Nero. The watching emperor is upset at the crowd’s constant demand for his entertainments, but Poppea (Patricia Laffan) reminds him that as an artist, he requires an audience. Afterwards, Marcus visits Petronius’s house, where he meets Eunice (Marina Berte), a Spanish slave woman he had been previously interested in. When Petronius sees that Marcus is no longer attracted to her, he learns of Lygia, and the two devise a plan to have Lygia abducted. Taken from her parents, Lygia is forced into “Nero’s house of women” and, with the help of manager Acte (Rosalie Crutchley), dresses for the night’s banquet. There, she sees Marcus and, understanding the purpose of her captivity, is angered. As part of the evening’s entertainment, Nero performs the composition about fire which he had been practicing earlier; he decides that it was inferior, as “one must suffer an experience to recreate it”, and from there is struck with the idea to burn Rome.

Marcus orders Lygia to be taken to the house of Petronius. As Acte helps Lygia leave, she reveals that, while not Christian, she is a sympathizer, and wishes her luck. On the way to Petronius’s home, Ursus, who had been lying in wait, attacks the guards carrying Lygia, allowing her to escape. Marcus inquires Plautius where Lygia’s whereabouts might be, and through him finds a guide, Chilo (John Ruddock) to lead him to a secret gathering of the Christians. In their meeting cave, Peter (Finlay Currey) delivers a retelling of the life of Jesus. Marcus attempts to trail Lygia home, but is attacked by Ursus, who is unaware of his intentions; he is taken to Lygia, who treats his wounds and gives him a place to rest. Seizing his opportunity, Marcus asks to marry her, promising to adopt the Christian iconography and “put up a big cross, higher than the roof”, but she rejects this knowing that he has not truly accepted the faith himself. Shortly after, Nero announces that he has burned all the sections of Rome apart from his palace to form a new city, Neropolis, and to reach new artistic heights. Marcus, shocked, rides into the crowded areas of the city to find that they’ve gone up in flames, and helps citizens evacuate. As citizens riot outside of Nero’s palace, accusing him of being “the incendiary”, Poppea suggests he lay blame to the Christians so that the mob has a scapegoat.

The Christians of Rome are rounded up and imprisoned, and Marcus finds Lygia there among them and joins her. As this occurs, Peter, who is traveling to Greece on the Appian Way, receives a heavenly sign in the forest to turn back to Rome after asking the film’s eponymous question “Quo vadis?”: “Wither thou goest, Lord?”. Petronius, suspicious that Nero is going to kill him, holds a dinner where, after freeing Eunice (whom he has fallen in love with), they both commit suicide. He also dictates a scathing note which expresses his true feelings about Nero and his works, devastating the emperor when he receives it. Nero arranges a spectacle in the Colosseum where the Christians are to be ripped apart by lions, and is disgusted by the way they sing and smile while condemned to death. When Peter returns, sensing trouble, he’s sentenced to be strung up on a pole over the sea. At night, dozens more Christians, including Plautius, are burned alive. Marcus and Lygia, realizing in full that they will most likely never see each other again, ask Peter to bless their partnership as a marriage so that they may be together in death.

Poppea devises a final punishment—she has Lygia tied to a stake, Ursus by her side, facing down a charging bull. At the same time, Marcus is handcuffed to a pole in the emperor’s booth and forced to watch. Marcus prays for strength, and breaks free from his restraints as Ursus strangles the animal. When Nero signals (against popular vote) that Lygia and Ursus should still die, Marcus and his soldiers storm the center of the arena. He announces that Nero’s reign as emperor is over and that Galba, who is returning from a military campaign, is the next successor. As the crowd storms Nero’s palace that night, the emperor realizes that Poppea was the mastermind of the plot to blame the Christians and chokes her to death. Acte offers him the blade to commit suicide, which he does with her help. The end of the film finds Marcus and Lygia raising a family together as Galba triumphantly rises to power in Rome.


The story of Marcus and Lygia’s romance, at the heart of Quo Vadis, is wholly fictional. However, the context it takes place in—the reign of the emperor Nero, from 37 to 68 AD—recalls a real historical period. Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius address this reign in their works, focusing, respectively, on Nero’s place within Roman history and his personal character.
Tacitus, who aimed to provide a detailed account of the emperors following Augustus in his Annals, provides the full historical background for events which linger at the periphery of Quo Vadis. The battles of Britain and Gaul which Marcus fights in most likely references, in part, the British revolt led by Boudicca, which occurs in Book XIV. A more frequently referenced event would be Nero’s arranged murders of his mother Agrippina and wife Octavia. These take place before the events of Quo Vadis, but are frequently mentioned by everyone from shouting spectators to Petronius in his suicide note as a kind of shorthand for Nero’s moral failings. According to Tacitus, Nero’s adulterous love for Poppea led him to depose of Octavia. When his mother Agrippina learned of his lust, her shame intensified their already contentious relationship (14.1). Tacitus is unfettered by the restraint of the already action-packed runtime of a film. He thus also has time to lay out the details of Agrippina’s death by beating after a failed drowning (8.1), as well as Octavia’s suffocation in a bathtub (64.1). In Quo Vadis, his crimes are instead committed out of the desire to “lay at the gates of an unknown world”—most likely to intensify his unhinged quality (and to tone down the severity of the acts for film).

The most significant historical event under Nero’s reign directly referenced in Quo Vadis is the great fire at Rome, which the film accurately dates at 64 AD. Though the Nero of film plots this destruction, like his familial murders, as part of his artistic mania, the real fire’s initial source was uncertain. Tacitus acknowledges in writing his account that “whether [the fire began] due to chance or to the malice of the sovereign is uncertain—for each version has its sponsors” (15.38). Nero’s actions as recorded by Tacitus were much more helpful than those of his film portrayal. He allowed those displaced by the blaze to live in structures on the Campus Martius, his private gardens, and other open spaces (15.39). Rumors still spread that he was performing poetry as the fire raged, creating the apocryphal story of “fiddling while Rome burns” (15.39). Adding whatever aid Nero may have provided to Quo Vadis would have clearly undermined both his plot and his villainous status.

Where Tacitus’s Annals are grounded in historical chronology, Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars aims to form portraits of the personality and character of the first emperors. As a result, his record is known for being sensationalized; comparing it against the events of Tacitus or other historians is useful in determining what is real. From Suetonius, we learn the details of Nero’s obsession with the lyre, which Quo Vadis capitalizes on heavily to show his narcissism. Of Nero’s concerts, he writes that “It is said that some women gave birth to children there, while many who were worn out…secretly leaped from the wall…or feigned death” (Suetonius, Nero 23.2). But as a counterpart, Suetonius also takes time to list some of Nero’s beneficial actions, including devising a protection against forgery (17.1) and limiting expenditures (16.2). As with Nero’s historical aid after the fire, including these in Quo Vadis would lessen his portrayal of complete madness.

An important point of comparison between film and historical sources is how each one handles the empire’s treatment of Christians under Nero. Both Tacitus and Suetonius take a negative, if not perplexed, view of the faith. Tacitus writes that the Christians were “loathed for their vices” and refers to their beliefs as a “pernicious superstition” (44.1); Suetonius uses near-identical wording when he writes of the “new and mysterious superstition” (16.2). There is no historical evidence that Poppea drove Nero to blame the Christians for the fire; in the film, this helps cement her as a sinister foil to the virtuous Lygia. Quo Vadis comes close to displaying the extent of the torture Christians faced after being assigned blame for the fire, complete with scenes of attacks by beasts and crucifixion. In real life, the details, though briefer, are even more grotesque: “When daylight failed [they] were burned to serve as lamps by night” (44.1), Tacitus writes. It is uncertain whether the Christians receive such a short mention because of a lack of concern from the historians, or if the worst of their persecution was short. However, that single, stark line from Tacitus conveys more about than the brutality of the torture than the adapted scenes of Quo Vadis.


Quo Vadis was based on a 1895 novel by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz which had been adapted to film in Italy a number of times before director Mervyn Leroy’s 1951 project (Solomon 2001: 219). He was given a $12 million dollar budget with the hopes he would produce a quality ancient epic at a time when Metro-Goldyn-Mayer’s (MGM) production studios were on the verge of bankruptcy. He spent it fully, and the results are evident in the visual spectacles which are essential to Quo Vadis’s production. The film was shot on site in Rome, adding to the realism of natural scenes like the opening shot of Marcus and the 14th Legion crossing the Appian Way. There is an impressive menagerie of live animals throughout the film, from the cheetahs who lounge at Poppea’s side to the lions sent to attack the Christians in the arena. (Leroy had to secure fifty lions from circuses across Europe for use in the film, and it was a struggle to train them to charge at the actors who played the Christians [Solomon 2001: 219]). The extravagant tone is present not only in these showier scenes, though, but in smaller pieces of detail work. One camera shot focuses over an intricate model of Rome, which Nero uses for his redesign of the city. Quick aerial shots of the city of Rome, like those of the triumph, feature impressively painted backdrops with a variety of architecture that project an air of grandeur. Quo Vadis’s score has also been noted for how it conveys a similar, spectacular feeling. To achieve some degree of authenticity, composer Miklos Rozsa found surviving pieces of Greco-Roman music and adapted them into longer orchestration (Solomon 2001: 220).

Screenshot: Nero’s sprawling replica of Rome (33:46).
Nero’s sprawling replica of Rome (33:46).

The use of spectacle in Quo Vadis was as much a point of focus for reviewers as it was for Leroy when he directed it. Critic Bosley Crowther, in his writeup for the New York Times, called it “the last of a cinematic species, the super super-colossal film” (Crowther 1951). The staff of Variety opined that “there are no ups and downs on the spectacular values that comprise the Circus of Nero, the profligate court scenes, the marching armies…” and so on, naming nearly a dozen scenes and set pieces (Variety 1951). Not all of these hold up for the modern viewer—in the scene where Marcus speeds towards the fire at Rome, pursued by Nero’s praetorian guard, the faint outline of the background video is noticeable. The overall appeal and cohesion of the visuals, though, is still well done. What remains consistent in reviews over the years is the film’s weaker characterization. Ben Pappas, revisiting Quo Vadis for Forbes magazine in advance of the release of Gladiator in 2000, snarked that by the end of the film, he had hoped the “superb pride of lions…[would] get their teeth into [Robert] Taylor”, a “wooden legionnaire” (Pappas 1951). This is a fair criticism—Taylor and Deborah Kerr’s performances as Marcus and Lygia, respectively, both pale in intensity to Peter Ustinov’s Nero, whose exaggerations and off-key prose fit well into the drama. Even Ustinov’s role could grow tiring, though, with Crowther complaining that the “notion that Nero was a monster and a numbskull is pounded at such length” (Pappas 1999). The moral absolutes of Quo Vadis’s plot hurt its characterization, creating roles more based on competing ideals than other traits.

Quo Vadis was a commercial success which pulled MGM out of bankruptcy, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards. One of these nominations Best Supporting Actor, went to Peter Ustinov, who was prompted to say that “ ‘No nation can make Roman pictures as well as Americans’ ”. This quote sums up how “American”-style spectacle was a double-edged sword for Quo Vadis, leading to big and memorable visuals, but acting that could have been more nuanced.


The fundamental ideological conflict in Quo Vadis takes place between the Christians and the Roman empire, wherein the Christians are a stand-in for virtue and the Romans are aggressive and debased. The understood moral differences of each side are conveyed with several visual signifiers, beginning with costuming. Compare the foils of Lygia and Poppea, for example—the viewer first sees Poppea in a multicolored, revealing garment with numerous articles of gold jewelry, while Lygia is modestly clothed. As a people, the Romans take up symbols for oppression and conquest which would have been instantly recognizable in the film’s postwar release. In scenes where the Romans greet each other or hail Nero, they use a motion identical to the Nazi salute. The cinematography of the triumph scene utilizes symmetry and pans over a dense crowd, recalling propaganda films like Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” (Joshel 2006). Quo Vadis’s score reinforces Roman militarization through the persistent drums of the opening sequence and triumph; the Christian gathering in the catacombs, by contrast, is marked with the soft tones of choral singing. Additionally, the emphasis on Roman slavery clashes with the Christians’ value for human dignity. The memorable opening narration intones that “there is no escape from the whip” as a soldier, having fallen out of step, is trampled by his peers. Lygia, on the other hand, acts as a counterpoint in her sense of respect for others. When she interacts with Marcus for the first time and he demeans those outside of Rome for their ragged appearance and calloused hands, Lygia caringly suggests that this “proves they are diligent”. The Christians’ position extends from moral to political defiance with the emperor’s contempt for the religion, which reaches beyond Tacitus and Suetonius’s bemusement at the “superstition” to downright hatred. In almost contemporary terminology, the Christians are deemed “the enemies of…the state”, effectively transforming them to political dissidents. In one of my favorite lines for its cleverness, Christian sympathizer Acte encourages Lygia in the faith, even in the presence of a praetorian guard. “Bear in mind, your fate is determined by the greatest power in this world,” she says—a double entendre which could refer to both Jesus or Nero. But the Biblical allusion in her parting words seals her intent: “His will be done.”

Nero salutes the crowd from his balcony at the triumph. (34:04)
Nero salutes the crowd from his balcony at the triumph. (34:04)

In the presence of the Romans’ oppressive power, martyrdom is elevated as a theme. Peter instructs the Christians that they must “obey those who govern you…even though, under them, you suffer cruelties”. Consequently, in the face of their punishment by the Romans, they find that ironically it is only through the act of dying that they can live out their faith. As Marcus ominously phrases it, “They know how to die”—the sacrifice becomes intertwined as an essential component of faith. The referential nature of how Quo Vadis’s script treats the course of history implies that there is a moral arc to such sacrifices. When Petronius attempts to dissuade Nero from assigning blame to the Christians, he argues that “You have often reminded us, Nero, of the judgment of history. What will its verdict be if you punish the innocent and betray your own greatness?”. Despite the brutal nature of the Christians’ deaths, it seems that they are avenged by history, a sentiment meant for the Christian viewer in particular to absorb.

The calm humility of the Christians is contrasted with the irrational, pleasure-driven mob of Roman citizens. This is shown to moving effect in the scene where the camera cuts rapidly between horrifying footage of lions attacking the Christians and the delighted, jeering crowd. The nature of the settings which each group appears in helps to reinforce this binary. The one significant voluntary gathering of the Christians is their hidden service in the cave, which is structured around an orderly teaching of Jesus’s life. The story told by Peter is intercut with staged reenactments of significant moments, such as the Last Supper, which resemble Renaissance paintings. The figures who act as community leaders are portrayed as knowledgeable men. Paul’s identity is saved through his cover as a philosophy teacher, and Peter, bearded like a traditional wise man, speaks with a measured, thoughtful tone. The Roman populace, conversely, appears most often as a swarm, flocking to places of disorder like the arena and the streets of the triumph. Christianity and its associated values are not only shown as moral, but more rational than those promoted by the Romans.

There is one interesting similarity between Quo Vadis’s diametrically opposed groups—both carry out their ideals on a global scale, though for entirely different purposes. The Christians want to reach others through good works—“to conquer…with love”, as Paul phrases it. The Romans, in turn, are baffled by this concept. “Conquest…is the only method of uniting and civilizing the world…have to spill a little blood to do it,” proclaims Marcus, the epitome of warlike ideal before his transformation. The global scope mirrors the context of the film’s release, in the years of World War II’s end and the Cold War’s beginning. An American viewer might be more inclined to sympathize with the approach of “love”—in political terms, the cooperation promised by alliances or groups like the United Nations—as opposed to another bellicose power. The Romans find themselves aligned with not only the oppressive powers of the previous war, but, by virtue of their avowed anti-Christianity, the new power of the secular Soviet Union. When Marcus accepts Christianity at the film’s end, he muses about “A more permanent world…or a more permanent faith. One is not possible without the other”. It’s a clear call for a mode of governance influenced by a set of values that would have resonated with viewers at the time.

Quo Vadis straddles the line between sword-and-sandal film and Bible epic—though it takes place during an era of Roman history, it inflates the religious concerns of that period and pairs them with Biblical story. It succeeds when it matches the conventions of each genre, tying together spectacular visuals and religious story. But its attempts to strike a balance between the two lead to an erratic last act, as events follow one after the other in an increasingly operatic mood. In the span of approximately thirty minutes, dozens of Christians become martyrs for the faith; Nero murders his wife before committing suicide himself; the emperor is deposed in riots and replaced by Galba—and yet Marcus and Lygia are still able to escape and prosper. The rapid occurrence of each of these moments reduces them to scenes of quick action rather than depth, especially when they involve hammy acting (Peter Ustinov’s wails during Nero’s suicide, for example). Yet perhaps this is in keeping with Quo Vadis’s many dualities—the Christians against the Romans; love against war; the troubled relationship of Nero and Poppea in contrast with the eventual marriage of Marcus and Lygia. Is it a well-intentioned message on religious devotion, a reflection of an era of global conflict, or entirely empty spectacle? Regardless of what conclusion the viewer comes to, its imagining of Rome is big enough to include them all as possibilities.


Castelli, Elizabeth A. “The Ambivalent Legacy of Violence and Victimhood: Using Early Christian Martyrs to Think With.” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, vol 6, no. 1, 2006, pp. 1-24, doi:10.1353/scs.2006.0028

Crowther, Bosley. “’Quo Vadis’, Based on Sienkiewicz Novel and Made in Rome, Opens at Two Theaters.” Review of Quo Vadis. The New York Times, 9 Nov. 1951.

“Imperial Rome: Christian Conflicts.” The Epic Film, by Derek Elley, London: Routledge, 1984, pp. 124-126.

Joshel, Sandra R., et. al. “Oppositions, Anxieties, and Ambiguities in the Toga Movie.” Chap 1 in Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006, pp. 23-49.

Joshel, Sandra R. et. al. “The Roman Empire in American Cinema after 1945.” Chap 2 in Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006, pp. 50-76.

Meyer, Stephen C. “Spectacle and Authenticity in Miklos Rozsa’s Quo Vadis Score.” in Epic Sound: Music in Postwar Hollywood Biblical Films, Indiana University Press, 2015.

Pappas, Ben. “Hail, Caesar!” Review of Quo Vadis. Forbes, vol. 163, no. 8, 19 Apr. 1999.

Quo Vadis. Directed by Mervyn Leroy. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1951.

“Quo Vadis.”, (accessed May 10th, 2018).

“Quo Vadis (1951).” Big Screen Rome, by Monica Silveira Cyrino, Blackwell, 2000.

Solomon, Jon. “Erato: The New Testament and Tales of the Christ.” Chap 5 in The Ancient World in the Cinema. Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 216-222.

Suetonius. The Lives of the Caesars. (accessed May 5th, 2018).

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Variety Staff. “Quo Vadis.” Review of Quo Vadis. Variety Movie Reviews, Dec. 1951.

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., n.d. Web. 08 May 2018.

“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.

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.        275










Weighing Spartan Sacrifice

The Spartan ideals of duty and physical stamina are appealing, argues Claire Jeantheau (’21), but the society which the Spartans defended is one marked by the elimination of independent thought and the physically vulnerable.

Before the final, climactic battle of Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006), the Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) sees Sparta-born Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), who had been cast out of Sparta because of his physical deformities, and who betrayed to the Persians the pass over the mountains that sealed the doom of Leonidas and his men. As Leonidas, about to die, faces Ephialtes one more time, he offers parting words: “May you live forever” (1:38:27-1:38:30). This scene is wholly fabricated from Herodotus’s original telling of the battle of Thermopylae. There, Ephialtes is simply “a man from Malis” who shows Persian king Xerxes a way to reach the Spartans through the mountains, and never once converses with Leonidas (7.213-17).  But for me, the alteration of his role to directly contrast with Leonidas creates an effective illustration of the values the Spartan system cherished.

Mount Taygetus, where weak or deformed Spartan babies were exposed to die.
Mount Taygetus, where weak or deformed Spartan babies were exposed to die. Photo: Flickr user Aris Gionis

While Ephialtes enters the tent of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and finds temporary wealth and physical pleasure (1:15:51), Leonidas’s last appearance finds him mortally wounded, but with a lasting legacy (1:46:19). When the two cross paths on the battlefield, the scene evolves from a clash between men to their opposing ideals they represent: duty on one side, the excess of life “forever” on the other. The Spartans’ emphasis on physical sacrifice, and its admirable result, is evident from Snyder’s depiction. Additional historical background from authors like Plutarch, however, brings to light another kind of sacrifice prevalent in Sparta, one where individuals could be eliminated as easily as the enemy for perceived divergence from physical perfection.  Do acts of glory like Thermopylae justify this culling of difference?

The film, as well as Herodotus’s account, would say yes. Both place emphasis on the Spartans’ strict brand of battle valor. Herodotus takes care to list exact numbers of fighters and contributions from other Greek city-states at Thermopylae (7.202-3), but seems to distinguish the three hundred Spartans from the rest of these “Dorian Greeks.” He quotes the inscription placed after the battle that singles out the Spartans: “Go tell the Spartans, thou that passeth by, That here obedient to their words, we lie” (7.228). (300’s Spartan narrator Dilios, played by David Wenham, utters a similar phrase at the film’s end [1:46:42–01:46:45]). Herodotus also tells anecdotes about individual Spartans that drive home this point. One soldier, Pantites, finds himself at such “dishonor” at surviving that he “[hangs] himself” (7.232).  Snyder takes a different approach, choosing to magnify Leonidas’s actions above those of the other Spartans and Greeks—perhaps to appeal to the individualist tastes of an American audience. Other Greeks are included in the script, but only representing Arcadia (0:28:12-0:28:16) and these are dismissed from the action with a simple “Hundreds leave” (1:28:40-1:28:43). Leonidas, on the other hand, receives an extended focus of attention. His final fight is backed with the dramatic weight of a score of battle drums (1:40:33); an aerial shot moves slowly over the resulting carnage (1:46:19 – 1:46:55). The closing shot of the last stand features him in sacrificial posture with arms outstretched, the lighting creating a halo-like aura behind his silhouette (1:43:18). The stream of Persian arrows that transition the frame into darkness lend a sense of finality, as though Leonidas has singularly ensured glory (1:43:22).  Though different contributions are prioritized in each telling of the battle, each one on their own shows, to me, a powerful display of tenacity on behalf of the Spartans.

What is notable to me about the battle’s end in 300, beyond the sacrifice itself, is the depth added to it by Snyder’s depiction of the Spartan upbringing. The film begins with Leonidas, as Plutarch writes, taken from his family and “enrolled” with other Spartans “in various ‘herds,’ so that they became used to playing together and learning together under the same rules and regime” (16). This place of intense training, the agoge, “…forces the boy to fight. Starves them. Forces them to steal. And, if necessary, to kill” (0:02:52-0:03:02) in Dillios’s brief, lurid description. While the culmination of this training in 300—in which Leonidas fends off a wolf in a mountainous wilderness (00:03:55)—doesn’t seem to be historically consistent, it acts as important foreshadowing for when he faces a situation of equal intensity at Thermopylae. There is even a flashback to the moment in which he faces down the wolf as he stands before the full Persian army, reinforcing the outcome of the grueling physical regimen (1:36:25). Snyder differs from Plutarch’s account, however, in excluding from his depiction out a component of Spartan education I appreciate—their efforts to strengthen the intellect in tandem with physicality.  Perhaps statements that the Spartans “were … interested in studying poetry and song” (21), or about their belief that “Good playing of the lyre counterbalances iron weaponry” (21), would be out of step with the aggressive tone Snyder adopts. I think, though, that they round out the real Spartans and show that their pursuit of combat was not a mindless one.

Another, more disquieting, aspect of Spartan education that Snyder doesn’t dwell on is the drastic influence the state had in controlling the individual’s path through life.  The enforced removal of a child from his family and the prescribed brutal training runs counter, in my view, to declarations of “A new age…an age of freedom” (1:25:03-1:25:10) in 300.  This has its advantages militarily—as Leonidas explains to Ephialtes in 300, “We fight as a single, impenetrable unit. That is the source of our strength” (0:43:03–0:43:08). But the regimented process doesn’t allow for any critical reflection on Spartan society, or individual pursuits deemed out-of-step.  The Spartans’ charge at Thermopylae may show an admirable outcome of this kind of education, but I am equally interested in its other side, and the sort of individuals it excludes. Leonidas’s foil of Ephialtes in 300 provides an example which, while mostly fictional, is rooted in Spartan ideas.
By altering Ephialtes’s historical character so that his assistance of the Persians was a betrayal rather than only collaboration, Snyder depicts him as departing from the Spartan values Leonidas embodies. In emphasizing what the Spartans so greatly hate, what they truly value becomes more evident. In Ephialtes, it’s his hunchbacked appearance, a deformity not present on the historical man (7.213–17). The limitations of his body prevent him from holding a shield (00:43:25), causing Leonidas to turn him away from the force and motivating his betrayal. The scene builds on the standards established by other real Spartan rituals. Plutarch details how “a session of the eldest men of [a father’s] tribe” determined whether an infant was “sturdy and strong”; if not, they were to be abandoned on “ a rugged spot near Mount Taygetus” (16).  This is dramatized in the opening scene of 300, with a chilling cut from the first shot of a blackened mountain of skulls to the vulnerable infant Leonidas (0:0:59-0:01:05).

Conversely, when 300’s plot finds Xerxes luring Ephialtes to the Persian side, the king emphasizes that he would find company; he persuades him that “The Spartans, too, were cruel to reject you. But I am kind” (1:16:38–1:16:48). Indeed, in Xerxes’s tent Ephialtes passes through others alike him in their physical deformities, including women with no arms (1:16:04) and facial burns (1:16:14).  These figures contrast with the sparse costuming on the bare-chested, muscular Spartans fighting a few moments before (1:15:33). Elsewhere in the battle, Snyder veers into horror convention with the design of monstrous Persians, whether a giant-like soldier (1:04:57) or a man with claws resembling a crab’s (1:11:43). Physical oddity is associated with the enemy Persians, while the heroic Spartans are physically ideal, sending a clear visual message: physical weakness, even if unpreventable, is equivalent to moral decay. The monstrosities of the Persians may be historical distortion, but the same attitudes about physical weakness, as Plutarch shows, were foundational in Spartan society.  This historical context lends a new tension to the earlier dramatization of Leonidas’s upbringing, making the consequences of any failure more obvious. In my view, the Spartans’ system operates on a cruel contradiction, one where death is preferable to dishonor and yet the abandonment of an infant deemed physically weak is still considered just.

I suppose, then, that my greatest issue with the Spartans’ values lies not in the values themselves, but in what they are used to fight for. The ideals of duty and physical stamina are appealing, especially when they allow for the kind of defense mounted at the battle of Thermopylae. But the society which the Spartans defend is one marked by the elimination of independent thought and the physically vulnerable. What is even more troubling is the Spartan view that these two concepts are inseparable—that such a level of courage can only be developed in a system to brutal to others. Leonidas and Ephialtes’s last confrontation in 300 represents this on a visual level as they stare from their respective sides, with no safe ground to cross between them. Maybe to occupy that middle space would represent a different kind of sacrifice—one that might lessen unifying strength, but would increase individual value.


Ancient Sparta: Realities and Legends

ROTC cadet Thomas Forte (’20) reflects on Sparta, the film 300, and American military culture.

In the last few decades, the Spartan legend has come to be highly regarded in American culture, especially among athletes, gym-goers and military personnel. The image of an athlete or combat veteran sporting clothing marked with the infamous Corinthian helmet worn by Spartan hoplites, often colored red, white and blue, is an easy sight to picture for many: and why shouldn’t it be? The idea of a people who fought for freedom and rationalism, vowed never to retreat or surrender no matter the odds, and fought with extreme tactical, strategic, and martial prowess is one that has some level of appeal to almost anyone who supports America’s foundational values. Martial prowess, loyalty to the cause, and fearlessness in battle are all ideals that American troops hope to emulate, and one could easily draw parallels between the hoplite phalanx and the defensive line in football. Even the famous cinematic Spartans war cry of “Ahoo!” reflects US military culture, as each branch has its own unique call in a similar vein (to name a few examples, the Marine’s “Oorah!” and the Army’s “Hooah!”).

Spartan helmet in red white and blue, from
Spartan helmet in red white and blue, from

But are these ideals the reality? To put it simply, not really. Movies such as 300 and its corresponding graphic novel have taken the most appealing aspects of the Spartan system, amplified some and adjusted others to better fit with American warrior culture. The realities of the Spartan system, while still appealing in many aspects, are quite unappealing in others and often clash starkly with American values.

I would like to begin by first examining the ideal of martial prowess, both as seen in contemporary American culture and portrayed by the Greek historian Herodotus. For the American view, we look to the film 300 as the primary source of its inspiration. In it, we do see the Spartans depicted as a highly coordinated fighting force (46:45), but primarily as highly skilled individual warriors. One of the most iconic scenes of the entire film comes early on the first day of Thermopylae where Leonidas is depicted in slow motion, moving effortlessly through the oncoming Persians, slaughtering those in his path (48:04).

The realities, according to Herodotus and other historians, certainly bear similarities to the 300 depiction, but place far more emphasis on the Spartans as a cohesive fighting force rather than highly skilled individual warriors, at least by comparison to the other Greek city-states. Probably the most telling story illustrating this point is that of the battle between the Argives and the Spartans over Thyreae, in which both sides sent a force of 300 men to decide who would be given control of the territory (1.82). In the fighting that followed, in which neither side had any tactical or strategical advantages, the battle ended with two Argives and one Spartan remaining. Had the Spartans been the uniquely and highly skilled warriors that 300 portrays them as, one would have expected a more lopsided outcome, but this battle shows that they weren’t necessarily superior on a man-to-man basis.

On the other hand, when the Spartans fight as a cohesive unit using effective strategic and tactical advantages against their enemy, they gain massive success. We see this both at the battle of Thermopylae (7.211) and the battle of Plataea (9.62). In the Plataea excerpt in particular, Herodotus says that “Indeed, the spirit and strength of the Persians were not inferior, but they were without armor, untrained, and unequal to their opponents in tactics” (9.62). Here, we see Herodotus clearly stating that the Spartans did not have any superiority in physical strength or skill, but rather superiority in military thinking. This is further communicated by the fact that Spartan generals were put in charge of the Greek alliance against the Persians.

While talking about the Spartans as warriors, it is also important to note that the film and the ancient sources, namely Herodotus, differ on the actual motivations behind Spartan heroics. In 300, the film seems to show the Spartan’s willingness to fight to the death as coming from a love for freedom and a total lack of fear in battle; this is probably best shown through Stelios’ “beautiful death” speech (37:33). Herodotus, on the other hand, certainly acknowledges that Spartans have fear, but they stay and fight because their fear of shame is greater than their fear of death. Between 7.229 and 7.232, Herodotus mentions three different Spartans and their actions at the end of Thermopylae; the first two are Eurytus and Aristodemus. Both were away from the final battle because they were recovering from a “severe disease of the eyes,” which sounds similar to PTSD-induced hysterical blindness, a phenomenon alluded to during Herodotus’s coverage of the battle of Marathon (7.229). In modern times, this sort of thing would be a valid excuse for leaving the fight, but not for the Spartans. Eurytus’s fear of shame is so great that he returns to the fight, where he is soon killed, despite his previous PTSD attack. Aristodemus instead decides to return to Sparta and is treated with so much shame that his fellow citizens refuse to speak to him until he is able to redeem himself at the Battle of Plataea (9.71). The third Spartan mentioned is Pantites, who survived Thermopylae simply because he happened to be delivering a message during the final engagement. Still, he was shamed so heavily on his return that it drove him to take his own life (7.232). Through these examples, it is easy to see why Spartans chose to die on the battlefield rather than risk disgrace at home.

Probably the starkest differences between the American image of Sparta and its realities come in that of the city itself and its culture. The film 300, again being the catalyst for the American view, shows us only the aspects of Spartan society necessary for the story, but also plays with them somewhat to better fit with American ideals. The most prominent feature of Spartan society displayed in 300 is the Agoge, which the film gets right with the exception of a few key details. The harsh reality of the Agoge depicted in 300 is correct. At the age of 7, Spartan children were indeed taken away and forced to fight and steal as part of their training (2:35). This is confirmed by the story of one boy who, rather than be caught stealing, allowed a fox cub that he was hiding under his clothing to claw him to death (Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus 18). One key aspect left out of 300’s depiction of the Agoge was the practice of pederasty, where at the age of 12 the boys were given a young adult male lover, who would help guide their education, but also interact with them sexually (this practice was also a part of a girl’s education, but to a lesser extent) (Paul Cartledge, The Spartans [New York: Random House, 2003], p. 69). Although key to the Agoge system, it is obvious why this was left out, as the idea of militarized, state-enforced homosexual pedophilia is a repulsive one to the overwhelming majority of modern western citizens. It certainly is to me.

From a governmental standpoint, 300 also does a fairly good job depicting Spartan society, except when it comes to the Ephors. In the film, the narrator calls them “Diseased old mystics… worthless remnants of a time before Sparta’s ascent from darkness” (16:51). The reality of the Ephors, however, was much different. Rather than the “diseased old mystics” of the film, the Ephors were an executive council of 5 men in charge of upholding the laws of Sparta (Cartledge, 70) and, according to Plutarch, were “…the secret of Spartan success and stability” (7). Although this was done to enhance the film’s conflict between reason and religious fanaticism, I personally think that keeping the Ephors as a sort of Spartan supreme court would have better embodied western values. Then again, having Leonidas go against the wishes of the Ephors in that case would probably have been somewhat looked down upon by the audience.

The main differences between the film and reality are most apparent in the elements of Spartan society that 300 leaves out. Probably chief among these were the Spartan emphasis on conformity and classlessness, and its economic system. Under the leadership of King Lycurgus, Sparta did its best to economically isolate itself from the rest of Greece, as well as to eliminate both luxury and, consequently, class. The land surrounding the city was redistributed into 39,000 plots, of which 9,000 were divided evenly among the Spartans (Plutarch, 8). The rest were given to the Perioeci, which were peoples living in the vicinity of Sparta who were subject to Spartan law, but had no say in Spartan affairs (Cartledge, 73). The Spartans also had Helots, who were slaves usually captured during war (72). The Spartans all dined at common messes, which were groups of around 15 men that all ate together and took turns providing the food for the meal (Plutarch, 10–12). They even had their own currency, which was made out of iron, and thus unusable anywhere other than Sparta (9). Freedom certainly comes to mind when thinking of Sparta, but by looking at their economic situation it’s very clear to see how the Spartan idea of freedom differs from the American one. America’s focus on economic and social individualism leads to a view of freedom as “freedom to…”; freedom to own what you want, do what you want, etc. On the other hand, Sparta’s communist-like emphasis on classlessness and conformity creates more of a sense of “freedom from…”; freedom from class, freedom from the dangers of luxury, etc. This sense of “freedom from…” is also why they seem to be able to justify having both second class citizens and slaves in their territory.

Sparta also had a very relaxed approach to marriage. Although it was essentially mandatory to get married (you were publicly shamed if you didn’t), husbands and wives did not live in the same households and it was common for men to trade their wives around in order to create better and stronger offspring (Plutarch, 15). This runs highly contrary to western culture, which detests state incursions into the love life of its citizens and values the sanctity of marriage; hence the marriage of Leonidas and Gorgo followed western ideals in the film.

As a final note on Spartan society, it is important to remember that Plutarch, the primary source used for most of the above information, envies the Spartan system with its blend of both autocracy and democracy along with its emphasis conformity, sacrifice and obedience to the state. His example of the boy and the fox is used almost more as a way to exemplify the effectiveness of the Agoge rather than to criticize it. Plutarch’s praise of the Spartan system does an excellent job of informing the reader of the differences in thinking between the modern day and the time of ancient Greece.

Having now learned much about the realities of Sparta as compared to the Spartan legend in American culture, I feel I can provide coherent thoughts on the topic. As an ROTC cadet and someone who thoroughly embraces both traditional American values and our society’s view of the Spartans, I come from the group of people most influenced by this contrast. When it comes to the realities of Spartan military culture, I personally prefer the emphasis on tactical and strategical superiority over individual martial skill. As an officer in training, it is more important to me to be skilled in those areas, while still embracing the “never retreat, never surrender” attitudes that come along with Spartan military culture. This attitude also shares parallels with that of the Army’s code of conduct, which states in article II: “I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist.” Even Herodotus’s words about the motivations behind Spartan heroics are ones that I can understand in some aspect, as group dynamics was an important factor in determining the sizes of the various levels of the Army’s chain of command; the fear of letting down or abandoning one’s comrades is certainly nothing to be taken with a grain of salt. The classlessness of Sparta and its ideals of conformity are where I start having problems. For the military, conformity is a good thing. If the culture and attitudes of the organization are shared among its members it is much easier to get everyone working together to achieve a common goal, but this is not the case for regular American society. We care very deeply about maintaining and expressing our individualism, and part of that is economic freedom and freedom of expression. For this same reason, I also don’t support the Spartan’s treatment of the Perioeci, or the taking of Helots.

To conclude, the Spartan legend as shown in the film 300 and the realities of the culture share similarities, but also contrast each other rather harshly the deeper one digs. While the Spartan idea of freedom may clash heavily with ours, as well as their emphasis on the collective rather than the individual, many of the basic tenants such as military prowess, fortitude, never retreating or surrendering, are maintained in both depictions and are highly beneficial to Sparta’s militarized society, the warrior culture of the US Armed Forces and, to an extent, regular American life.

Hollywood and History: Hannibal (1959)

by Seth Levin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The directors vividly capture the daunting task of crossing the Alps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle scenes were poorly acted and unrealistic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Hannibal. IMDb. Accessed May 07, 2016.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

by Tobin Bromberg

Synopsis of Druids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient Background

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

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

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

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

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

Making the Movie

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

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

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

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

Themes and Interpretations

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Hollywood and History: Centurion (2010)

by Benjamin Fleming


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

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

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

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

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

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

Dias returns to Arianne.
Dias returns to Arianne.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Works Cited

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

Centurion (Ilan Eshkeri).” MovieScore Media Sweden. Web. Accessed 3 May 2016.

Centurion.” Company. Web. 3 May 2016.

Centurion- Neil Marshall Interview.” Web. 3 May 2016.

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

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

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

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

Gladiator.” Company. Web. Accessed 3 May 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Hollywood and History: Cleopatra (1963)

By Eleanor Kaestner

Plot Outline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cleopatra lies in state following her suicide.

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

Historical Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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


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