Hollywood and History: Agora (2009)

By Joelle Cicak

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

Plot Outline

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making the Movie

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

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

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

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

Themes and Interpretations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


Work Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sami Samir.” IMDb.com.

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

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

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


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

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

by Jonathan Northridge


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

Plot Outline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient Background

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

Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations

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

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

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

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

Cassius Dio’s Roman History – Epitome of Book LXXIII

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

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

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

Historia Augusta – Life of Commodus

The Historia Augusta “Life of Commodus” explicitly describes the Emperor as being deranged and murderous (H.A. 5.4-6). After becoming emperor, he abandoned his father’s war on the northern frontier and relented to the barbarians’ demands in order to go back and have fun in Rome as Caesar (ibid. 3.5-6). It provides a list of murders and depraved acts that Commodus supposedly carried out. He is said to have murdered at least 20 of his friends while trying to replace his former co-commander (Cleander) and intended to kill 14 more (ibid. 7.4-8). The Historia Augusta also describes his affinity for gladiator combat, “He regularly took part in the spectacles, and as often as he did so, ordered the fact to be inscribed in the public records. It is said that he engaged in gladiator bouts 735 times.” (ibid. 11.11-12).

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

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

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

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

Making the Movie

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

Unfortunately, the lofty ambitions set by the filmmakers became their own undoing at the time of release. The market was oversaturated with big-budget, sword-and-sandal movies by this point in Hollywood history. In a review for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther loathed its larger-than-life characters, and described one chariot scene as a lackluster imitation of Ben-Hur. With successful movies such as Spartacus and El Cid immediately preceding it, audiences and critics seemed not to care much for the genre anymore (for the conventions that Crowther criticizes are actually executed quite well, with some exceptions.)

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

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

Themes and Interpretations

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

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

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

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


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


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

Works Cited

Crowther, Bosley. “Screen: Romans Versus Barbarians: Spectacles and Melees in ‘Fall of Empire'” New York Times 27 Mar. 1964: n. pag. New York Times. The New York Times Company. Web. 4 May 2016.

Dio, Cassius. “Epitome of Book LXXIII.” Roman History. Vol. 9. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1927. N. pag. Roman History by Cassius Dio. University of Chicago. Web. 05 May 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Hollywood and History: Pompeii (2014)

by Hugh Downs

Plot Outline

Pompeii starts in A.D. 62 in Northern Britannia during the rebellion of the Celtic horse tribes. A young Milo witnesses Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) and his troops massacre his family and tribe. The next day Milo awakens to see the bodies of the tribe’s warriors hanging from a tree with their weapons. Milo flees into the forest but is captured by slavers and taken to Londinium.

The film then jumps forward 17 years to A.D. 79. Milo (Kit Harington) is now an indomitable gladiator known as The Celt. Graecus (Joe Pingue), Pompeii’s games organizer, watches him defeat three other gladiators single handedly. Graecus is pleased with Milo’s performance and has him brought to Pompeii.

On the way Cassia (Emily Browning) and her handmaid Ariadne (Jessica Lucas) pass by in their carriage on their return to Pompeii after a year in Rome. Graecus’ trainer Bellator (Currie Graham) pulls the slaves off the road, ordering them to “make way for [their] betters!” Unfortunately, one of Cassia’s horses steps in a ditch and breaks its leg; Milo goes to help the horse, but he is stopped by Bellator. Cassia then orders Bellator to let Milo help. After observing the horse’s situation, Milo breaks its neck to put it out of its misery. Bellator apologizes to Cassia for this and calls Milo a savage. Ariadne asks Cassia why Milo would do such a thing, to which she responds that it was the kindest thing to do.

Upon reaching the villa Cassia first runs into her mother Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss), who is surprised to see her back so soon. Cassia says that she had had enough of Rome and was eager to be back. Aurelia asks if she met anyone in Rome but Cassia tells her that there was no one worth mentioning. Aurelia says not to worry as Cassia’s father Severus (Jared Harris) has alerted all the unmarried men in the city of her return. Cassia goes to the stables to see her favorite horse, and the stable boy tells her that he will exercise it tonight so it’ll be ready for her tomorrow. While riding the horse, though, there is a small earthquake and the stable boy is thrown off and falls into a crevasse while the horse flees back to the villa.

Meanwhile, Milo is led into the gladiators’ living quarters by Bellator, who calls the slaves savages and animals. During dinner Milo is assaulted by another gladiator, whose brother he had killed in the arena. The fight is broken up by Bellator and Graecus, and Milo is thrown into a cell with Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Atticus asks Milo what his name is but Milo refuses to say, telling Atticus that there isn’t any point in knowing each other since eventually they’ll have to kill each other.

The next day during training Atticus and Milo spar together to get ready for the games. During the bout, the same gladiator who attacked Milo during dinner the previous night attempts to shank him in the back; Atticus saves him, however. When Milo asks Atticus why he saved him, Atticus responds by saying that “no gladiator should die from a blade to the back” (26:10). Atticus tells Milo that after killing him in the arena tomorrow he will be a free man under Roman law. Milo warns Atticus that the Romans won’t keep their promise and that the only freedom for a gladiator is to die unconquered in the arena and spit in the eye of Rome.

At this point Corvus (the Roman who slaughtered Milo’s tribe), his lieutenant Proculus (Sasha Roiz), and their men arrive in Pompeii. Severus, hoping to persuade Emperor Titus to invest in Pompeii, tries to curry favor with Corvus and allows him to camp near the villa. Cassia speaks strongly against this, telling her father that every wicked man in Rome has the ear of the emperor. Severus, however, ignores his daughter and invites Corvus to a party celebrating the Vinalia. Milo, Atticus, and the other gladiators are brought to the villa and put on display for the party. Cassia sees Milo and is smitten. During the party, Severus and Corvus talk more about a possible investment. Although Corvus says that the emperor is focused on Rome, he personally is interested in investing and will have the papers drawn up. He then asks Severus if Cassia could bring them drinks to celebrate. Corvus takes Cassia out on the balcony and tells her that he would like for her to return to Rome with him as his wife. Cassia refuses and leaves.

There is another small earthquake at this point which spooks Cassia’s horse once again and allows it to get out of its stall. Cassia orders Bellator to bring Milo and they rush to the stable. Cassia implores Milo to go in and calm down the horse. Milo succeeds, and Cassia enters to find him astride it. She asks where he learned to ride and Milo tells her about his people and their death by Roman hands. Cassia offers her condolences, but Milo gets mad at her because she is a Roman. Cassia responds by saying that she is not a Roman but a citizen of Pompeii and in fact detests Rome. Milo takes Cassia for a ride to the base of Vesuvius where he tells her they can’t be together and worries about what will happen when they are caught. Cassia urges him to ride for his freedom but Milo responds by asking “at what cost to you?” (44:17). He instructs her to tell the guards that the blame is his. Cassia reluctantly agrees to this as the two are captured and brought back to the villa. Corvus is ready to kill Milo until Cassia intervenes; Corvus has him lashed instead, saying that “after all mercy is a virtue” (45:30). While Milo is being lashed Proculus approaches Graecus and tells him that Corvus wants Milo to fight and die first tomorrow. Later Ariadne asks Cassia why she went with Milo to which Cassia responds that he made her feel safe. Back in the cells, Atticus tends to Milo’s wounds; a mutual respect develops between them and Milo tells Atticus his name.

The next day before the games Graecus tells Bellator to send Milo to the right tunnel so he can fight first. Bellator asks if he should do the same with Atticus, since the crowd would rather see Atticus die a glorious death than win his freedom. Graecus agrees, and Milo and Atticus are sent to fight in the opening of the games. The opening fight is a reenactment of Corvus’ victory over the Celtic horse tribes in Britannia. In setting the scene the announcers tell the crowd that Corvus gave the Celts many chances to surrender but “mercy was an alien concept to these savages” (55:10). This left him no choice and, “with a heavy heart Corvus ordered his mighty legions in the name of the emperor to attack” (55:18). The reenactment gets under way with Atticus and Milo fighting as Celts. Corvus notices Cassia’s worry for Milo and asks what he is to her; Cassia tells him Milo is “everything that you’re not” (57:40). Milo and Atticus triumph over the Romans and Milo takes the standard, breaks it in half, and throws the eagle into the dust, saying “I do not yield to the power of Rome, I spit on it!” (60:39). He hurls a spear at Corvus but it is deflected by Proculus. Corvus, seething with rage, orders Proculus to bring a detachment to the arena to kill Milo and Atticus. Seeing this, Atticus says to Milo that everything the Romans promised them turned out to be nothing but lies. However, the crowd is chanting “Live!” and before Corvus can give the thumbs down Cassia intercedes with a thumbs up.

Corvus is irate and tells her that she will marry him or else he will have Titus kill her and her family. Cassia agrees against her will and Corvus orders her to be taken back to the villa. Immediately after, another larger earthquake occurs, which Corvus tells the crowd is Vulcan anointing Milo as the new champion of Pompeii. He sends Proculus into the arena to fight and kill Milo in single combat. During the fight Vesuvius finally erupts; a massive earthquake hits the city, causing sections of the arena to collapse, including the section where Cassia’s parents and Corvus are sitting. The crowd erupts into pandemonium as everyone tries to flee towards the harbor. Milo continues his fight Proculus, knocking him down into the holding area for the other gladiators below the arena. Proculus admires his bravery but tells him that “no savage can ever be a match for a Roman” (68:20). Proculus attacks Milo, pushing him toward the lever controlling the cell door. Milo pulls the lever letting the other gladiators out. Proculus escapes but Bellator is beaten to death.

Above ground Severus, who survived the collapse, attempts to kill Corvus while he is unconscious, but Corvus wakes up and stabs him instead. Severus dies holding Aurelia’s hand. Corvus and Proculus then leave for the harbor. Milo and Atticus emerge from under the arena and hear Aurelia calling for help. She tells Milo that he must go to the villa to save Cassia. Milo tells Atticus that he has to rescue Cassia because she risked everything for him. They agree to meet at the harbor and Milo heads for the villa. At the villa Milo finds Cassia buried beneath some burning rubble; he lifts her out and tells Ariadne to bring some water. Ariadne gets water, but when she goes back to get more half of the villa collapses into the sea and she dies.

Back at the harbor Corvus realizes that he won’t be able to get a ship and begins trying to make his way back through the crowd. When this doesn’t work, he orders his men to start killing the civilians. Another earthquake shakes the town causing a massive tidal wave to sweep towards the shore. Atticus yells for everyone to run and flees back towards the arena. On the way, he rescues a child who had fallen and couldn’t get up. He manages to get away from the tsunami safely with the child and returns him to his mother. Milo and Cassia find Atticus and they decide to go to the arena to find horses so that they can head for the hills in the south.

When they reach the arena, Cassia sees the wrecked booth her parents were in and goes to see their bodies. Milo and Atticus go to fetch the horses, but discover that the arena is swarming with Romans. When they come back above ground they see Cassia shackled to Corvus’ chariot and surrounded by Proculus and some other guards. Corvus orders his men to kill Milo and Atticus and flees with Cassia. Milo and Atticus easily dispatch the other guards, leaving only Proculus. Atticus tells Milo to leave Proculus to him and go after Corvus. Proculus and Atticus duke it out but Proculus eventually gets the better of the gladiator and stabs him, saying that “a barbarian does not die the equal of a Roman” (89:04). Atticus, however, breaks the Proculus’ sword, grabs him, and begins pushing the broken blade towards his throat, asking him whether a Roman can die equal to a gladiator. Proculus begs for mercy, but Atticus tells him that gladiators do not beg and cuts his throat.

While Atticus faces Proculus, Milo chases Corvus and Cassia through the destroyed streets of Pompeii. The chase comes to an end after Corvus’ chariot hits a rock and overturns. Corvus and Milo begin to duel and Milo stabs Corvus in the arm. Cassia then shackles Corvus to the chariot to prevent his escape. Corvus shouts “Who are you to do this to me? I am Senator Quintius Avius Corvus!” (93:12). Milo responds, “And what is that worth?” before leaving with Cassia.

Milo and Cassia escape the city on horseback, but are not able to get far enough away before the horse needs to stop and rest. Milo says that the horse can’t carry them both and tells Cassia to escape. Cassia refuses, and the two embrace in a kiss as the ash cloud sweeps over them and turns them into stone.

Ancient Background

Pompeii is, as the name implies, based on the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, and the subsequent destruction of the town of Pompeii in A.D. 79. One of the best ancient sources dealing with this topic is Pliny the Younger. Pliny witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius from his home at Misenum, across the Bay of Naples from Pompeii. In his Letters, he includes two written to Tacitus, the great Roman historian. The first letter describes the events surrounding the death of Pliny’s uncle Pliny the Elder as a result of the eruption; the second letter discusses Pliny’s own personal experience during the eruption.

Pliny opens the first letter by thanking Tacitus for asking for an account of his uncle’s death so that he might “write about it more accurately for posterity” (Pliny, 6.16). Pliny continues his flattery, saying that “the immortal quality of your [Tacitus’] works will add much to keeping his memory alive” (6.16). After dispensing with the pleasantries Pliny finally gets into describing the actual eruption.; his description serves as a backdrop to the death of his uncle, who perished during the disaster. Pliny starts by describing a pine shaped cloud rising in the distance, which his mother pointed out to his uncle. The cloud was “sometimes white, sometimes dingy and spotted, depending on whether it carried earth or ash” (6.16) and Pliny surmises that it “was lifted up by an initial burst of air, then lost support as this grew weaker, yielded to its own weight, and thinned out sideways” (6.16). Ever the scientist, Pliny the Elder desired to study the cloud from a closer vantage point and ordered a ship to be made ready. Before he departed, however, he received a message from one of his friends pleading with him to help her and her husband escape from their villa at the foot of the mountain. Pliny changes his plans and sets sail to help his friends.

At this point Pliny the Younger provides more details of the actual eruption. He says that ash was now falling on the ships and was getting “hotter and thicker the nearer they approached . . . Chunks of pumice and other stones, blackened, scorched, and cracked by the fire” (6.16) also began to fall. So much debris was falling that the waters became shallow and the shore unapproachable. This forced Pliny the Elder to change his course for Stabiae.

After arriving at Stabiae Pliny eats with his friends and takes a bath, despite his friends urging him to depart immediately. While Pliny is relaxing in the villa “vast sheets of flame and tall columns of fire were blazing from many points on Mount Vesuvius” (6.16). Pliny tells his friends these are just fires started by the townspeople on the mountain and that they have nothing to fear. He then goes to take a nap. During his nap, though, the courtyard of the villa was quickly filling with ash and pumice, threatening to trap him there. To prevent this, Pliny’s friends wake him and debate whether or not they should flee, as “the walls were swaying under the repeated and tremendous shocks” (6.16) from an earthquake. The only danger outside was falling pumice, so they opted for flight and tied pillows around their heads for protection. Pliny the Younger describes the atmosphere outside as “the blackest and thickest of nights” (6.16) due to the enormous amount of smoke and ash billowing. The sea was still inhospitable to ships, preventing Pliny the Elder’s escape. There were flames and the smell of sulfur all around, which caused Pliny’s friends to flee, although he remained where he was. Soon Pliny succumbed to the ash and suffocated.

The second letter’s description of the eruption begins by describing the earthquake that preceded it. Pliny the Younger, who is still across the Bay of Naples from Vesuvius in Misenum, says that “the surrounding buildings began to shake violently” (Pliny, 6.20) which caused him and his mother to fear the buildings would collapse. Thus, they decided to leave. After leaving, though, Pliny and his mother still “saw many amazing sights and had many frightening experiences” (6.20). They were unable to use carts in their escape because the carts were “moving in opposite directions […] even with stone wheel blocks” due to the tremors (6.20). Pliny also notes that “the sea had been sucked backwards” (6.20), signaling the wave that would soon strike Pompeii. He continues, describing a “terrifying pitch-black cloud, broken by the frenetic twisting of fiery gusts, as it opened to reveal long flame-like shapes, similar to lightning, but bigger” (6.20). This matches the description of nuèes ardents (burning clouds)—very hot clouds of incandescent rocks and gas, which are created after the ash column of a volcanic eruption crashes back down onto the volcano (Francese and Smith 28).

Soon after seeing this Pliny says that the cloud “descended upon the land and covered the sea. It surrounded Capri and made it vanish, and hid Cape Misenum” (6.20). Ash started to lightly fall, and the cloud continued to follow Pliny “like a flood poured across the land” (6.20); after the cloud came darkness “like a dark room when the lamp is out” (6.20). In this darkness Pliny describes hearing the shouts, shrieks, and wails of women, children and men. He says that some prayed while others were certain that “there were no gods at all and that this was one last unending night for the world” (6.20). Still others spread tales, albeit false, that “one or another part of Misenum had collapsed or burned” (6.20). In the midst of this, the darkness lessened a little, which was taken as a sign of approaching fire rather than any real deliverance from the current plight. Although the fire didn’t reach Pliny, he notes that “darkness and ash came again, a great amount of it” (6.20). In fact, there was so much ash now falling that Pliny had to keep getting up to shake it off lest he be covered and crushed by it. At long last the cloud dispersed to a kind of smoky fog, and soon after this “real daylight” returned with the shining sun, although its light was diluted by the haze. Pliny describes what he witnessed at this point as “a changed world, buried in ash like snow” (6.20). He returned to his home. Even though the danger had passed Pliny still felt dread “for the earth was still shaking and a number of people who had gone mad were mocking others’ misfortunes and their own with terrifying prophecies” (6.20).

What Pliny’s two letters make clear is that the eruption of Pompeii was a harrowing experience. Pliny’s vivid descriptions of each stage of the eruption, especially in his second letter, paint an image of destruction and terror. Moreover, his clear and eloquent language place readers directly into the action as he himself experienced it.

Given Pliny’s descriptions of the eruptions above, how does Pompeii portray the disaster? Pretty accurately, it turns out. In fact, the movie has even been lauded by volcanologists for its realistic depiction of the eruption (Lewis). Anderson does a good job showing the sequencing of events during the eruption. Where most disaster movies simply skip right to the lava rushing down from the volcano Anderson takes audiences through each stage of the eruption. Following the sequence of events Pliny described in his letters, Pompeii first starts with an earthquake. It then moves on to depict ash exploding out of Vesuvius before climaxing with the “burning clouds” sweeping down the mountain into Pompeii. Anderson even includes the tsunami alluded to in Pliny’s second letter.

Anderson’s portrayal of the Pompeians’ reactions to the eruption is also very similar to Pliny’s description. In the city Anderson shows the citizens fleeing terror-stricken from their homes, rushing and pushing to escape their impending doom. Everywhere people are shouting and crying, and pandemonium abounds.

Aerial view of the eruption of Vesuvius
CGI Aerial View of Pompeii at the height of Vesuvius’ eruption.

This is not to say that Anderson portrays the eruption of Vesuvius exactly as it would have happened. After all, Pompeii is a movie, not a documentary (Lewis). Aspects of the eruption have been fabricated in order to make it more exciting for audiences. For example, during the eruption Anderson shows flaming balls of lava raining down on Pompeii and the Bay of Naples. Although these look impressive there is no mention in Pliny of anything of the sort happening. Furthermore, there is also no archaeological evidence of any objects crashing into Pompeii during the eruption. The tsunami depicted in the movie is also greatly exaggerated. In the film, a gigantic wave crashes into the city and carries a large ship down one of Pompeii’s main streets. While there is some evidence of a tidal wave hitting Pompeii (Lewis) and while Pliny does allude to a wave in his second letter, it would have been nowhere near the scale shown in Pompeii. As with the “lava bombs” Anderson includes this giant tsunami to make the eruption more exciting for his audiences.

Making the Movie

Pompeii is an action-romance disaster film directed by Paul WS Anderson, best known for the Resident Evil movie franchise which he both wrote and directed. The film’s screenplay was written by Janet Scott Batchler and Lee Batchler (Batman Forever), and Michael Robert Johnson (Sherlock Holmes, 2009). Pompeii was produced by TriStar Pictures, FilmDistrict, Constantin Film International, and Impact Pictures. It had a budget of $100 million dollars and grossed $117.8 million worldwide (most of which came from outside the US). Pompeii was not filmed on location but rather in the Cinespace Film Studios in Toronto.

As a brief recap, Pompeii stars Kit Harington (Game of Thrones) as the protagonist Milo. Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) plays his love interest Cassia and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Lost) portrays his friend and fellow gladiator Atticus. The dastardly Roman senator Corvus, the antagonist of the film, is portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland (24). Jared Harris (Mad Men) and Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) play Cassia’s parents. Other cast members include Joe Pingue (Room) as Graecus, Sasha Roiz (Grimm) as Proculus, Jessica Lucas (Gotham) as Ariadne, and Currie Graham (NYPD Blue) as Bellator.

The acting in Pompeii has been criticized for its lack of energy. Screenrant.com calls the performances of nearly every actor “stiff” and “flat” (Kendrick). The review especially has problems with Sutherland’s Corvus, calling him “downright bizarre” and comparing him to “a cartoon villain” (Kendrick). Other reviews are not as nice. Writing for the Telegraph, Robbie Collin absolutely slams Sutherland’s performance, calling it “strange” and “slurping”, and compares his accent to “a man acclimatising to a new pair of false teeth” (Collin). Sutherland was even nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor in 2014. While Sutherland gets the brunt of the criticism for his acting, the other performances are simply too bland to make the movie as exciting as it could have been.

The main inspiration for Pompeii comes, as one would guess from the title, from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii in A.D. 79. In an interview with the Huffington Post Anderson talked about how, when he saw the plaster casts from the city as a boy, he wondered “‘Who were these people, and what was their life story?’” (Rojas). According to Anderson, the main characters in the film are   “inspired by” these casts. Milo and Cassia were inspired by the two lovers of Pompeii, perhaps the most famous cast from the city. Atticus was based on the cast of a large man, most likely from North Africa, cowering in fear. Many of the other characters in the film are very similar to characters in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, which makes Anderson’s comment seem to really just be a bid to increase the authenticity of Pompeii.

In addition to Spartucus, Pompeii also borrows many elements from other films in its genre, most notably Titanic and Gladiator. Pompeii’s plot is very reminiscent of James Cameron’s great love story, albeit with a different setting and disaster. Both movies feature star-crossed lovers separated by class desperately trying to be together while the world falls apart around them. Apart from the setting and disaster, the only other major difference between the two stories is the ending; in Pompeii both Milo and Cassia perish whereas in Titanic Rose is rescued.

Some scenes in the film can also be traced back to Gladiator, especially the gladiatorial reenactment of Corvus’ victory over the Celts. In this scene, the gladiators play the part of the Celts and are meant to lose to the Romans. This is evocative of the scene in Gladiator where Maximus and the gladiators portray the Carthaginians in a reenactment of the Battle of Zama. In both scenes, the gladiators are meant to lose but instead prevail over the Romans. During Pompeii’s battle scene Corvus even remarks that he doesn’t remember the battle going this way; Commodus makes a similar statement in Gladiator. Milo’s hatred and distrust for the Romans is also reminiscent of Maximus’ feelings towards Commodus.

Being a disaster movie, Pompeii uses many CGI shots to recreate the eruption of Vesuvius; the film even won a Canadian Screen Award for Achievement in Visual Effects. The visual effects in the movie were done primarily by Mr. X Inc. although many effects studios were involved with creating the movie. While the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the film is CGI many of the visuals for it were based on actual eruptions. Anderson and his crew viewed footage and pictures of recent volcanic activity in Iceland and Japan in order to better understand what a volcanic eruption actually looks like (Rojas). In the same Huffington Post interview mentioned above Anderson even says that, while working on the visual effects for the movie, “we would have what we were doing up on the screen, and right beside it we would have real photography of actual events” (Rojas). Thus, while the visuals of Vesuvius’ eruption were created in a studio every attempt was made to ensure the depictions were authentic.

Visual effects were also used to create both Mt. Vesuvius and the aerial views of Pompeii in the movie. For these shots Anderson again stressed the desire for historical accuracy. He photographed the city’s plan from a helicopter and then overlaid a CGI image on top of this to make sure the layout of the city was historically accurate (Rojas). This same process was used for reconstructing Mount Vesuvius’ original cone shape that blew off during the eruption.

Despite the seeming ubiquity of CGI in Pompeii there are in reality only 500 visual effects shots in the film (ScreenSlam). The majority of scenes were shot on real sets using either practical effects or a green screen backdrop. Anderson chose to shoot the film this way so that the disaster and action appear more realistic. Although this required more work from the actors Anderson though it would make their acting all the more convincing and compelling (ScreenSlam).

Themes and Interpretations

The first major theme of Pompeii is that having power is not the same as having honor. There are numerous instances in the film of people in power (i.e., Romans) behaving dishonorably towards those they deem to be weaker. Bellator and Corvus exemplify this theme, although it is reflected to a certain extent by Proculus as well.

Over the course of the film Bellator is constantly demeaning and abusing the gladiators he oversees. He constantly calls them scum, animals, and savages and is unable to see them as anything but. It is inconceivable to him that anyone from outside the empire’s influence could ever be a respectable or honorable man. Thus, he treats Milo, Atticus, and the other gladiators not as one would treat their fellow man but rather as a farmer would treat their livestock. Bellator believes these men only to be good for fighting and dying in the arena for the entertainment of Romans. As such he does not see the need to treat them with any kind of decency because they are all going to die soon enough. This belief is echoed by Milo early on in the film when he refuses to tell Atticus his name because they’ll be forced to kill each other at some point.

Bellator’s belief that gladiators are only good for fighting and dying also explains why he goes to Graecus before the games to convince him to move Atticus to the opening fight with Milo. He hates the idea that Atticus will have “beaten the system,” winning his freedom after defeating his last opponent in the arena (even though it’s a Roman law which would grant Atticus his freedom). Bellator loathes this so much, in fact, that he would betray Atticus’ trust so that a “savage” might be prevented from going free. Up until this point in the film Atticus had faith that Roman law would prevail over Bellator’s personal vendetta, despite Milo warning him otherwise. Once Atticus realizes what Bellator has done, his attitude towards the Romans completely changes. After defeating the “Romans” in the reenactment, Atticus tells Milo that he was right all along and the Romans’ promises amounted to nothing but lies in the end.

Corvus, too, embodies this theme of having power not being the same as having honor. In some ways, he is even more dishonorable than Bellator because many of his actions are aimed more at Cassia and her parents (Roman citizens) rather than Milo, Atticus and the other gladiators. In pursuit of Cassia’s hand in marriage we see him use coercion and threats to secure his goal. When Milo is brought back to the villa after riding off with Cassia she pleads with Corvus not to kill him; Corvus responds by asking her what she would give him for not killing Milo. This question essentially forces Cassia to become indebted to Corvus lest she lose the man that she actually loves. Once Corvus realizes during the games that Cassia loves Milo and not him, he goes all out and coerces her into agreeing to marry him. He tells Cassia that if she doesn’t return to Rome with him as his wife he will have Titus hang her and her parents from Pompeii’s walls for doubting the emperor’s ability to lead (a made-up charge). Cassia agrees for the sake of her parents but remains defiant, prompting Corvus to threateningly promise to break her will back in Rome.

Not only does Corvus act dishonorably towards Cassia and her family, he acts dishonorably towards the other citizens of Pompeii as well. During the eruption, when everyone is fleeing to the harbor, he orders his men to kill the citizens after unsuccessfully trying to push through the crowd. As a senator and general of Rome Corvus should have been trying to help the citizens escape the eruption but instead he is only concerned about his own safety.

There is also a subtheme in the film that people deserve to be treated based on their actions rather than their station. This is shown in the deaths of Bellator, Proculus, and Corvus. Once Bellator and Proculus realize that they are about to die both begin to beg for mercy. What’s ironic about this is that both were killed by gladiators (i.e. slaves), a group that neither would have given mercy to were the roles switched. We even see exactly how Proculus acts towards Atticus when he thinks that he has killed him, telling him that “a barbarian does not die the equal of a Roman” (89:04). Corvus, on the other hand, does not beg Milo and Cassia for his life; rather, he seems to have trouble believing that they would even have the gall to chain him up and leave him for dead. This is illustrated by his question “Who are you to do this to me?” (93:12). There is irony in this statement, too, as it shows that Corvus believes that simply because he is a senator and general of Rome he should be treated with respect and dignity. Milo’s response, though, shows that it is not your station that dictates how you are treated but your actions. Corvus’ actions in the film were not only dishonorable but despicable as well, and Milo and Cassia leaving him to be killed by the volcano rather than killing him themselves shows that he received his just deserts. Proculus and Bellator also reaped what they sowed at the end of film, again showing that our actions, not our stations, dictate how we should be treated.

The other major theme of Pompeii is love, specifically love’s ability to make you forget what else is happening in the world. The love story of the film revolves around Milo and Cassia, a love which is uncertain from the start due to the different social statuses of the lovers. Milo and Cassia each have their own problems but being together allows them to forget their woes. This is first seen during the party after Milo takes Cassia for a ride on her horse. When Ariadne is talking with Cassia after Milo’s lashing Cassia tells her that Milo made her feel safe. It is important to remember that this ride takes place soon after Corvus asks her to return to Rome with him as his bride. During this conversation Cassia also tells Ariadne that the only reason Corvus didn’t have his way with her while she was in Rome was because she left before he could. Knowing these things, it is now easy to see why Cassia was so reluctant to return to the villa with Milo. She fears Corvus and what he may do to force her to marry him; riding off with Milo allowed her to forget these troubles and feel safe for the first time since she left for Rome a year ago.

Milo and Cassia at the end.

We see this theme again during the final scene of the movie. In this scene Cassia and Milo have gotten out of the city but their horse is not strong enough to carry them both to safety. So, against Milo’s wishes, Cassia chooses to stay and die with him. As the ash cloud bears down on them Milo tells her to focus only on him and the two embrace in a last kiss. At this point the soundtrack in the background

switches from the threatening rumble of the ash cloud to a calm, moving instrumental piece. This change in music also changes the tone of the scene. Whereas before it was frightening and tense it is now much more peaceful. It makes audiences feel what Milo and Cassia feel as they kiss: a sense of serenity. They use their love for one another as a shield against the reality that they are about to die; in this way, they are able to forget what is about to befall them.

Overall my biggest problem with Pompeii is that it is trying to fit too much in to its 105-minute run time. Not only is it a disaster film, it is also a love story with an element of revenge as well. I think that Anderson bit off a little more than he could chew and the film suffers as a result. All the different elements of the story seem to be rushed through in order to set up the disaster element. Consequently, they do not work as well as they could have had the film been longer or more focused on one movie trope rather than several. In regards to the love story, it is clear that Anderson was trying to emulate Titanic but falls well short of the bar set by James Cameron. This aspect of the film is too rushed to be convincing (Milo and Cassia never even exchange names) and lacks the depth needed to convince audiences that the two are actually in love and not just mutually attracted to each other. Likewise, the revenge element of the movie is clearly trying emulate Gladiator but again falls short; it is more convincing than the love story, yet it still lacks the depth required to make audiences truly care.

The one aspect of the film that Anderson does do well is the disaster. His use of visual and practical effects make for a pleasing spectacle as Vesuvius erupts and destroys the city. The burning rocks crashing down on the city are exciting and the tsunami is an unexpected surprise for those not familiar with the letters of Pliny. Even so, there isn’t anything all that innovative about here either. At the end of the day Pompeii is just another somewhat entertaining big-budget disaster film at heart that is not worth seeing multiple times unless you have to write a paper on it.

[Header Image: The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum. John Martin, 1822 (restored 2011). Reference number N00793. Tate, London, Britain. Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)]


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Kendrick, Ben. Pompeii Review.” Screen Rant.

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Lewis, Tanya. “Lava Bombs and Tsunamis! How Accurate Is ‘Pompeii’ Movie?” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 20 Feb. 2014. Web. 08 May 2016.

Mintzer, Jordan. Pompeii: Film Review.” The Hollywood Reporter. 19 Feb. 2014. Web. 08 May 2016.

Pompeii (2014).” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 08 May 2016.

Rojas, Alejandro. “Interview With Paul W. S. Anderson, Pompeii Director, on the Film’s Scientific and Historical Accuracy.” The Huffington Post, 21 Feb. 2014. Web. 08 May 2016.

ScreenSlam. “Pompeii: Director Paul W. S. Anderson On Set Movie Interview.”  YouTube, 07 Feb. 2014. Web. 08 May 2016.

Smith, R. Scott, and Christopher Francese. “Pliny the Younger.” Ancient Rome: An Anthology of Sources. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2014. 317-321. 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.