On the Iliad and Excellence

Sophia Miretskiy (’20) discusses her changing understanding of the Iliad in relation to her own life and that of her immigrant parents.

Intaglio: Minerva throwing her aegis over Achilles early 19th century. Source: Metropolitan Museum
Intaglio: Minerva throwing her aegis over Achilles, early 19th century. Source: Metropolitan Museum

Every child has a “thing,” one irrational obsession, a subject in which they feel they are an expert. For some it is sharks or snakes, for me, as for many other children, it was classical mythology. I would pride myself on knowing every god in the Greek pantheon and memorized every Roman equivalent. In third grade, I set my sights on a career that I deemed perfect for my interests—archaeology. My family assumed that this was just a phase and humored my interests, gifting me mythology books and allowing me to pester them with my “fun facts.” However, the longer this phase lasted, the more concerned they became. They began encouraging me to choose a different, more prestigious career path, while pressuring me to strive to be better than my peers. Instead of taking their advice, I chose to dive deeper into my fascination with mythology. I found comfort in gruesome stories of extravagant heroes. A little later I discovered the works of Homer. The Iliad in particular became my favorite mythological work. It wasn’t until quite recently, however, that I discovered the reason behind my fascination with the story of Achilles. I realized that I see myself in Achilles, and the heroes in Homer, because my battle with the need for excellence, impressed upon me by my family, is reflected in the values of these heroes. The pursuit of excellence, being the greatest among my peers, was pushed upon me by my parents, and their parents. This mentality, however, is a product of their own environment and the lasting legacy of war that can also be seen through the Iliad.

My parents immigrated to the United States with their parents from the Soviet Union, fleeing lifetimes of persecution and institutionalized anti-Semitism, ingrained into society. They joined the waves of Soviet refugees, settling in a community where they would continue to be surrounded by people who were culturally similar. Though they left on the cusps of their adult lives, they were still not entitled to the same opportunities given to those who had lived here longer. They had the typical immigrant story: they, along with my grandparents, worked hard so that my siblings and I would have better lives. My family hoped to give me everything that they were deprived of—an education, financial stability, and the opportunity to be free and independent. Yet they themselves unintentionally hinder my freedom and independence by imposing their own notions of what my achievements and accomplishments should be.

As with most other children of immigrants, the mentality that I must be the best was something instilled on me from a young age. In school I was constantly compared to my peers and children of my parents’ friends, and I, of course, was never good enough. I was constantly reminded of the shame that I brought upon my family among their friends when I failed to live up to the expectations that they had set. Why was it that Tanya’s son got an A on his math test, when I got a B? However, I have realized that earning success was not simply about bragging rights for my family, but was something they used as a means of survival. They grew up, as many in the Soviet Union, impoverished in a failing economy, and though they have lived in the United States for almost 30 years, they retained their old mentality, living as though there is still a chance that they might walk into the grocery store and find the aisles empty. They subconsciously used my potential for success as a means to guarantee that they would never again have to experience the same conditions that they were raised in.

However, I soon began imposing the same notions of perfection on myself. My expectations of myself were different than those of my family. They expected excellence in a practical manner, hoping that I would be successful enough for financial stability, to provide for myself and all of them. I, however, strove to be like the heroes in the stories that I had become so fascinated with in my childhood, deciding that if my legacy was not as monumental as theirs that I have failed both myself and my family.

Much of the Iliad celebrates the competitive, toxic pursuit of excellence and perfection. Heroes strive for glory over survival, with the risk of being a detriment to their family legacy. In one famous exchange, the Lycian warrior Glaucus, fighting on the Trojan side, meets the Greek Diomedes. In response to a challenge from Diomedes asking who he is, Glaucus tells the long story of his descent from the hero Bellerophon, and concludes:

Hippolochus bore me, and I declare I am his son.

He sent me to Troy and charged me earnestly

to be the best always, superior to the others,

and not to bring shame on the line of my ancestors

who were the best men in Ephyre and wide Lycia (Iliad 6.206–210)

Ἱππόλοχος δέ μ᾽ ἔτικτε, καὶ ἐκ τοῦ φημι γενέσθαι:

πέμπε δέ μ᾽ ἐς Τροίην, καί μοι μάλα πόλλ᾽ ἐπέτελλεν

αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν καὶ ὑπείροχον ἔμμεναι ἄλλων,

μηδὲ γένος πατέρων αἰσχυνέμεν, οἳ μέγ᾽ ἄριστοι

ἔν τ᾽ Ἐφύρῃ ἐγένοντο καὶ ἐν Λυκίῃ εὐρείῃ.

Heroes must present themselves before battle, stating their father and grandfather’s name, ensuring that they continue the glory of their ancestors. This constant invocation of fathers and grandfathers by heroes in the Greek tradition, makes a powerful statement in presenting the values of the text. It seems that success in battle is always tied to family pride.

I found that, like myself, Achilles grapples with these ideas of honor and excellence. In the Iliad, Achilles’ fate was forced upon him from a young age. When he chooses to question the idea that he is destined to solidify his legacy at Troy, he is met with backlash and pleas to reconsider. After Briseis is taken from him my Agamemnon, Achilles decides that he would rather return home than continue to have his honor taken from him. He outlines his decisions and potential fates to Odysseus when he attempts to convince him to stay and fight, saying

If I remain here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,

then lost is my return home but my renown will be imperishable.

If I return home to my dear native land,

then lost is my glorious renown yet my life long will endure,

and the doom of death will not come so soon of me.

εἰ μέν κ᾽ αὖθι μένων Τρώων πόλιν ἀμφιμάχωμαι,

ὤλετο μέν μοι νόστος, ἀτὰρ κλέος ἄφθιτον ἔσται:

εἰ δέ κεν οἴκαδ᾽ ἵκωμι φίλην ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν,

ὤλετό μοι κλέος ἐσθλόν, ἐπὶ δηρὸν δέ μοι αἰὼν

ἔσσεται, οὐδέ κέ μ᾽ ὦκα τέλος θανάτοιο κιχείη. (Iliad 9. 412–416)

He decides that he no longer needs glory and chooses to return home and live out the rest of his life in peace. However, Odysseus, sent by Agamemnon, begs him to reconsider his decision, claiming that the Greeks need the “greatest of the Achaeans” to win the war, pushing the narrative of excellence over survival. Though he holds steady in his decision, Achilles is later pushed into battle by the death of Patroclus, and ultimately fulfills his destiny and kills Hector, solidifying his legacy.

To the ancient Greeks, these events proved that no one was able to escape destiny, and portrayed the glory of their predecessors. For my younger self, however, they demonstrated that sacrificing yourself to leave the greatest legacy was always better than settling for healthy mediocracy. I focused on this outcome of the Iliad, and many of the other ancient myths that emulated these same themes, because these values were already stressed by my family.

It wasn’t until I analyzed the Iliad in an academic setting that I began to realize that the ancient Greek ideal of a hero should not be idolized. It was in the analysis of the aristeiai that I learned of the flaws of both Achilles and the Homeric concept of heroism. The aristeia was the climax of the ancient hero’s greatness, when he demonstrated his power in battle and destroyed his enemy, and was often what solidified his legacy. Achilles’ aristeia, for example, was him killing Hector. However, these feats of greatness were often war crimes in disguise. Achilles’ aristeia continued after the death of Hector, when he proceeded to mutilate the body of the hero, dragging him behind his chariot around the walls of Troy. These demonstrations of so-called greatness show an alternative side to perfection, demonstrating the toxic nature of the expectation of excellence.

Despite this realization, I continue to struggle with the expectations imparted on me by both my family and myself. I have long held the idea that I too must leave a legacy, in this overextending myself to the point of exhaustion and bending myself to the will of my family, in an attempt to meet their standards, and eventually my own. While at the same time, I have known from a young age that I will never live up to the expectations that my family set for me. I instead decided that perhaps if I am successful on my own terms, I would fulfill the dreams that all immigrant parents wish for their children. This however, has not proven to be effective. My accomplishments are not something that they can understand or accept.

My reading of the Iliad has allowed me to better cope with my upbringing and the expectations that I set for myself. My younger self was able to find comfort in Achilles’ story, and used it as an escape from my own world of expectations. I still find comfort in the Iliad, but a different kind of comfort. I now use it, not as escape, but as a way to understand that the achievements anticipated from me, and that I anticipate from myself, are not always feasible. It has helped me see that the pursuit of excellence can be dangerous, and that, since I am not a Homeric hero, I must find motivations other than perfection.

I feel that reading the Iliad will benefit my family, just as it allowed me to better understand my motivations, actions, and flaws. A closer reading of the Iliad has shown me that this drive to perfection and excellence stems from war, something that has had an immense impact on the mentality of the society that shaped my family. In his 2010 book Achilles in Vietnam, doctor and clinical psychiatrist Johnathan Shay captures this connection between the Iliad and themes of war. Focusing on veterans of the Vietnam War, with whom he has worked extensively, he analyses the lasting psychological effect that this catastrophic event had on those who saw combat, and connects those stories with the narrative of war in the Iliad. He interprets the Homeric text as an “account of men in war,” not in an attempt to modernize the ancient story, but as a way to both further understand the Iliad and legitimize the experiences of veterans.

In his analysis, he finds that, in many ways, Achilles’ psychological character is not unique. The motivation behind his decision to desert, his reliance on Patroclus, and his issues with authority are all characteristic of soldiers in combat. However, the Achilles’ aristeia is something that cannot be found in modern warfare. Though the death of a comrade could cause an American soldier to “go berserk,” on top of the grief that they were already suffering through, they were often pushed by their superiors to thirst for revenge. Achilles’ rampage, however, came solely out of grief, and was cruel even for Homer.

Shay finds that the Iliad is representative of many other aspects of war. In addition to the psychological impact of war on those facing combat, he also discusses the impact of war on civilians. He points out women and children face the risk of immense suffering and complete devastation upon defeat, something the Trojans knew during the war. The impact the lasting psychological effects of war, not only in veterans, but also in these civilians is dangerous.

These lasting psychological effects are ultimately what shaped the society that my parents and grandparents were born into. My grandfather, born in 1940, lived to see the aftermath of World War II, and constantly, to this day, recounts stories of famine and death. From an early age, I learned of the atrocities of the Holocaust and the effect that the war had on my predecessors. It seems that post-Soviet states have still not recovered from the memory of a war that took place over 70 years ago. Their governments idolize victory, not allowing their citizens to distance themselves from their war-torn past. It is in this environment where this mentality of excellence is able to thrive. My grandparents were raised in this environment, where glory and victory were worshiped. My parents were constantly pushed to be the best, with the reminder of the sacrifices that their predecessors had to make in order for them to have the opportunities that they had.

In reading the Iliad, my family may be able to finally understand where their values come from. Though they dwell on the atrocities of war that have affected them personally, they are unable to see that these lasting effects are dangerous. They praise success in war and see it as a necessity, rather than a danger. By reading the story of Achilles, and comparing their values to those of Homeric heroes, they may be able to recognize that war should be understood as something purely violent. They may also be able to see that their mentality, pushing toxic pursuit of excellence, is a remnant of war, and therefore itself is inherently dangerous and violent.

They might also find comfort in reading the Iliad, as I did, using it to look back on their own childhoods and cope with their experiences. They could even finally understand my obsession with classical mythology, and gain an appreciation for the stories that have always fascinated me.

This, of course, is all hypothetical. Realistically, even if my parents, or grandparents, do read the Iliad, they may not come to same conclusions as I have. Their interpretation of the text may be completely different than what I have come to understand. This, however, will not take away from the comfort that I find in reading the works of Homer. The Iliad has allowed for me to better understand myself and my environment. It has allowed me to look inward and find my flaws and motivations and has served as an escape from expectations when I needed it to. Though my parents may still hope that my love for the classical world is just a phase, I know that I will continue to read, and be fascinated by these texts, just as they will continue to help me understand myself and the world around me.




St. Augustine, Teaching, and Piety

Carl Hamilton (’21) discusses the impact on his life of reading Augustine’s Confessions.

Dickinson’s seal is emblazoned on mugs, envelopes, and Britton Plaza, but its Latin motto is little understood by the community at large. Pietate et doctrina tuta libertas, is simple Latin: “Through piety and learning liberty is (made) safe.” But the ease of translation belies the difficulty of understanding. What is piety? What is learning? And finally what is liberty itself? Such pregnant concepts lie in so few words.

photo of the college seal with Latin motto
In the summer of 1784, as the college’s founders discussed the formation of the college, Benjamin Rush and John Dickinson were asked to create a suitable seal for the institution. The resulting seal consists of an open bible, a telescope and a cap surrounded by the inscription “Pietate et Doctrina Tuta Libertas.”

“Liberty is made safe through character and learning” is the translation on a wall in the registrar’s office, and on the college website. There is no need to consult a Latin dictionary to be  struck by the 21st-century individualism of translating pietas (piety) as “character.” As if the ambiguity already present in the words properly translated was not enough, here the school itself is officially promulgating an incorrect translation of its motto.

To communicate my views on the motto, specifically the words doctrina and pietate, I must enlist the aid of St. Augustine through my personal experiences with his autobiography, Confessions. By reading this book, I learned that learning and piety, formerly two very separate concepts in my mind, depend wholly on each other, such that one cannot be separated from the other without losing the integrity of both.


Teaching, learning, academicism, however you may translate doctrina, has always been a prominent part of my life. From an early age I had loved books, learning to read The Cat in the Hat before ascending to more refined works such as Encyclopedia Brown and, later, Shakespeare. In elementary school, I was always excelling in the highest level classes. As I progressed in my schooling, math became a challenge. I failed a math final in tenth grade and gladly took a much lower level class as a junior; but, when it came to humanities, I was always performing at the highest levels.

And oh, how I delighted in such subjects! Nothing would please me more than causing aesthetic or literary conflagrations of opinions. As one of a conservative bent, my very liberal senior-year English class provided fertile ground for this squabbling.  If I left class shaking my head in disgust or victory, it had been a good day. Through sheer knowledge, I was able to dominate most arguments, or, as Quintilian quotes Cicero as saying, to “throw dust in the eyes of my jury.” I remember haughtily correcting someone across the class who claimed that Shakespeare lived under Queen Victoria with a snobbish, “Actually, you mean Elizabeth.”

In high school I found Latin, which subject shamefully became the primary outlet for this intellectual pride. At that time, I could think of nothing so pleasing as having others recognize my wide erudition. Although I loved learning, I desired academic mastery mainly for the sake of myself, not the material per se, and certainly not for any moral or intellectual good. I sought to understand so that I might show off for rewards on tests, in classroom competitions, or in discussions. In Latin 4, the other seniors and I so dominated discussions that on the mid-year evaluations one of the juniors wrote, “Why do the seniors have to be so intimidating?”

I question now whether I would have been as zealous for learning had those direct benefits not existed? If you had asked me the purpose of Latin and liberal learning at the time, I probably would have propounded lofty Arnoldian platitudes that learning enriches the soul with “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” But such would have been a deception: I was greatly advancing in doctrina, or so I thought, blind to any higher aims than my own success.

It was during high school in fact when I first picked up Confessions but stopped reading somewhere in the second or third book. The impact it had on my immature self was minimal, for I remember thinking, “How could he dare assert the vanity of Vergil and classical learning in general?” I recall expressing this alarming thought to my Latin teacher, who responded, “Well, I guess he realized he had found something greater.” I walked away unimpressed with his answer. The irony was mine though, for less than two years later I would take and read Augustine again, wherein I would find something far greater than Vergil indeed.

As to piety, religion certainly was not absent from my life at this time. I began attending the Latin Mass, the rite of Catholic Mass in effect from 1570 until 1969. Being very wary of the liberal reforms in the Church after Vatican II, I was constantly researching and trying to practice Her traditional ways. But my learning and my piety, except for the Latin connection at Mass, were almost entirely separate at this time. From Monday to Friday I boasted in the classroom; on Sundays I was humble at Mass, and never the twain shall meet.


In the fall of 2017, my freshman year at college, I once again took and read the Confessions. I know not why, but I sat in the library and read the first book, getting lost in time as I got lost in the truth of what I was reading, with each sentence being a carefully mounted attack against the once impregnable fortifications of my pride.

Augustine, an academically talented boy, found himself, I realized, in a very similar situation to my own. Born in Thagaste, North Africa, in 354, he was raised in the Catholic faith by his mother, Monica (later St. Monica). In adolescence he drifted from the faith and came in adulthood to hold a chair of rhetoric in Rome. Eventually, hearing angelic voices in a garden telling him, tolle, lege, (“take and read”), he left his career to be welcomed back into the Church. He rose to become a priest and then in 396 a bishop in Hippo, less than 60 miles from his native Thagaste. In this position he wrote his theological masterpieces, On Christian Teaching, On the Trinity, and On the City of God against the Pagans. These, among his other works, did more to intellectually buttress the Church than probably any others until St. Thomas’ Summa in the 1200’s.

But while his theological works received the greatest attention in the Middle Ages, they present very little of Augustine the man. Only since the 19th century, the age of the Romantics, has Confessions received a large amount of attention (See Garry Wills’ 2011 book, Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography, p. 137). Nevertheless, much comment on Confessions neglects its personal aspects, or perverts its personal aspects for selfish ends, as the Freudians do whose “Psychobiography,” as Wills says, “found Confessions irresistible,” by asserting that his mother Monica was a dominating force throughout Augustine’s life. Some used the historical-critical method, such as Harnack in the 19th century and Courcelle in the 20th, to carp at the work for inconsistencies with his letters, ironically mirroring Augustine’s own meaningless historical fault-finding in the Old Testament (Wills, p. 141). Other philosophers focused on the abstract parts of Confessions, such as Wittgenstein on language acquisition, or Heidegger on the meaning of time as discussed in the last, non-autobiographical section of the book (pp. 145–146).

Most of these are important avenues of study, ones which Augustine encourages through Confessions and from which I have benefitted in my own theological thought. But in order to reach the noble heights of such works I needed the milk of Augustine’s personal reflection, not yet the strong meat of his theology. I found such reflection in the early books of his Confessions, where Augustine describes in lacerating detail his encounters with schooling during boyhood and adolescence. These meditations of his pierced my being on that day in the library.

In Book 1 Augustine expounds most fully his unpleasant schooling experience. He describes being taught grammar by the grammatici, the first teachers in a boy’s Roman education to “get on in the world and excel in the handling of words to gain honor among men and deceitful riches.” He continues in this condemnatory vein saying that, “the idling of men is called business; the idling of boys [ball playing], though exactly like, is punished by those same men” (1.9.15). While I agreed with these criticisms of his own political society, ambitious as ours is, the last point in this section brought the condemnation onto me: “if on some trifling point [the teacher] had the worst of the argument with some fellow-master, he was more torn with angry vanity than I when I was beaten with a game of ball.” (Confessions 1.9, trans. Sheed). What does that describe but my classroom experience, especially in high school, where I can think of countless times being either piqued by someone’s better knowledge, or proud that I had just displayed my own voluminous knowledge? Like Augustine, these bouts had earned me applause of “Well done! Well done!” (1.13.21). But it is a tragic irony that the external flatteries of the world cause the internal swollenness of the soul.

At this early stage in Augustine’s career, he was being taught the grammar of Latin and Greek, which, as most students attest, is a miserable and grueling process. But, when his class starts reading literature, especially Vergil, he becomes wholly taken and “weeps for the death that Dido suffered…and not for the death” which comes “through not loving God” (ibid.). This love of literature he counts as a worse evil than oratorical pride because an emotional immersion in Vergil turned his attention away from an emotional connection with God. What purpose, Augustine frustratingly asks, do the fictional stories of Aeneid serve? Nothing, he would say, save to avert attention from God. Hearing the harsh finality of this condemnation, I the reader stood doubly condemned. While he had loved Vergil for his poem, I loved Vergil both for his poem and for what he could give me, mainly academic honor and prestige, such as a 5 on the AP Latin test.

To remove myself from this condemnation of literary vanity, Augustine taught me to focus on teleology. Book 1 is essentially a study of these ends, a meditation upon why people take certain actions. He finds that, when he reads Cicero’s Hortensius, “Suddenly all the vanity [he] had hoped in [he] saw as worthless, and with an incredible intensity of desire [he] longed after immortal wisdom. [He] had begun the journey upwards by which [he] was to return to You [God]” (3.4.7). Thus, looking back, he condemns his reliance on Vergil and his schoolmasters’ pride because their teleology was misplaced in “superfluous and self-indulgent” fictions, as he calls them in On Christian Teaching, and useless desires of personal gain (On Christian Teaching 2.25.39, trans. Greene). Augustine realizes that he should have cherished the grammatical teaching, which he called “the surer,” because Truth can arise from writing, such as in the Scriptures or theological writings, but not from pagan works, especially fictional ones such as poems: “Which loss would be more damaging to human life-the loss…of reading and writing or the loss of these poetic imaginings-there can be no question…” (Conf. 1.13.22)

These readings showed me, so puffed up in intellectual pride, that I was putting my justification in “so much smoke and wind,” false stories and vain pride, not upon truth, which is God (3.4.7). Augustine’s Confessions was my Hortensius, showing me that Truth, as Christ said He is, should be the aim of all intellectual endeavor. I will be good, but there will always be some Latinist better than I. I will understand Vergil, but someone will always have more insight than I. It was only through Confessions that I truly saw the vanity of all my fruitless pride and anger from intellectual superiority.

It was easy for me to read all these ideas and replace academic pride with a sharp anti-intellectualism. As The Imitation of Christ, a medieval devotional work, states, “Learned words do not make anyone wise or holy: it is a good life which draws us closer to God” (The Imitation of Christ 1.1, trans. Jeffery). But, I thought, while my love of learning for my own sake was misdirected, certainly there had to be a place for learning? How else was I to apply my naturally eager mind? Surely the great intellectual saints, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm, St. John Henry Newman, and of course, St. Augustine, had found a way to use their active minds in a manner efficacious for the faith and for salvation, not for their own vanity. But I found it hard to balance piety and learning, for it seemed the deeper I went into the one, the further I got from the other.

Doctrina pietate

To work out my Augustinian dilemma we must return to Dickinson’s motto. I have realized that learning and piety, doctrina et pietate, cannot work separately. As Augustine and I can attest, learning without piety leads to vanity, and piety without learning causes an unformed, undisciplined faith. Rather, I must borrow the syntax of that venerable Ciceronian phrase, otium cum dignitate, (leisure with dignity), to formulate a new motto which says doctrina cum pietate tuta libertas (By teaching with piety, liberty is safe). Salvation and justification do not come by displaying academic achievements, how much Greek history I know, or how many epic similes of Vergil I recall. They have their place in this earthly life, but they must eventually give way to Truth. If I, through some writing or study, might elucidate or communicate to someone a mere morsel of that truth, then I will not have labored fruitlessly.

I expect a conscious reader to ask, “Why are you a budding Classicist? Why would you ever read another pagan word in your life?” I can indeed read such things, because I do not share Augustine’s very strict views on art, which seem to restrict any art not directly efficacious for salvation. Rather, taking his teleology which submits all things toward salvation, I think non-religious art and entertainment is acceptable so long as one does not allow it to distract from the faith, as Vergil distracted Augustine. Neither I, nor St. Augustine, profess Fideism, which seeks to sever the bonds between Athens and Jerusalem, pagan and Christian art. One only has to read On Christian Teaching to see how indebted indeed Augustine’s homiletic theory is to Cicero’s Orator. So, I shall study Vergil’s metrical brilliance, stand in awe of Bach’s counterpoint, marvel at Van Gough’s vital globs, but recognize that all of this will pass away, but the words of Christ, who is the Word incarnate, will not pass away.

Confessions taught me to understand why Augustine wrote all his other theological works: out of love of God, not personal ambition. His writings, as St. Francis’ asceticism, St. Monica’s prayers, and St. Francis Xavier’s missionary work, were his way of living that love, a love of God which he cultivated, not as a mere tradition blindly handed down, but as a gift which received him and which he strove all his life to pay back through writing. And in turn Augustine’s writing, though separated in a dark manner through centuries, is a gift which I myself have received face to face, and which anyone could receive, if he should be willing to, like St. Augustine in the garden, tolle, lege.

Roman Imperial Crisis and the Rise of Christianity

Sulpicius Severus’ Life of St. Martin of Tours (ca. AD 397) supports one of the key contentions of modern scholars about the rise of Christianity in the later Roman Empire, argues Drew Kaplan (’20). The benefits of Christian doctrine were twofold: it provided a series of answers to the crises and questions of the period easily understood by ordinary people, while being fully open to those who sought a deeper understanding through theological contemplation, in the manner of the Neo-Platonists.

Bronze statue of the emperor Trebonianus Gallus A.D. 251–253
Bronze statue of the emperor Trebonianus Gallus A.D. 251–253 (Metropolitan Museum, New York)

The third and fourth centuries AD, the earlier part of the period known as Late Antiquity, were a period of great religious and socio-political transformation for the Roman Empire. What had previously been a polytheist empire ruled from Rome by a single man had become a Christian state ruled by as many as four emperors simultaneously, all the while fighting more intensely than before simply to retain what was already Roman. The decline of state power brought a renewed search for answers to metaphysical questions the old religious cults now appeared unable to answer. Throughout the empire, traditional religious practices began to shift towards rites which offered individuals an escape from the weakness of the worldly empire, and granted revelation by means of inward reflection and contemplative prayer, not just the promise of a bountiful harvest by the offering of a goat or cow at a physical temple. Amongst the rites attempting to fill the newly emerged gap was Christianity, but it was hardly the only candidate.

The reasons for the success of Christianity have been much discussed, with some scholars emphasizing the doctrinal superiority of Christianity itself, other the worldly patronage of Constantine the Great. A roughly contemporary document, the Life of St. Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus (ca. AD 363 – ca. 425), written in Latin in what is now France in the later fourth century, helps make the dynamics of European conversion clearer and more concrete for one place and time, at least.

By 371 A.D., the year St. Martin (AD 317–397) was elevated as Bishop of Tours, the empire had already seen a series of civil wars, imperial sessions, and barbarian invasions. The historian Eutropius, writing around the same time, remarked that, during the 260s A.D., “the Alemanni ravaged Gaul and invaded Italy. Dacia, which had been added beyond the Danube by Trajan, was lost at that time. Greece, Macedonia, Pontus, and Asia were ravaged by the Goths, Pannonia was ravaged by the Sarmatians and Quadi, Germans invaded both Spanish provinces and stormed the prominent city of Tarraconensis, and with Mesopotamia occupied, the Parthians began to claim Syria for themselves,” leading him to denote this period as the nadir of Roman fortune (Eutropius, Breviarium 9.8.2, my translation). Although some recovery occurred, the fourth century displayed many of the same trends. The central government vacillated between non-functional at best and near non-existent at worst, and the functions of state were reduced to little more than ensuring the army was sufficiently staffed and provisioned to keep potential invaders at bay. Eutropius reports fewer outside invasions in the fourth century than the third, but the empire was wracked with a series of civil wars, one of which brought the emperor Constantine to power, and another following his death. As historian Ramsay MacMullen points out, imperial propaganda continued to assert that the empire was well, despite growing recognition of the contrary (MacMullen 1976, 11).

The inability of the state to secure for its population physical security led to a turn towards the metaphysical. Why would the gods permit such suffering and destruction on earth, and, given that it cannot physically be halted, what sorts of metaphysical solutions are available? What is clear is that there was a great deal of anxiety which permeated Roman society in the third and fourth centuries provoked by the civil wars, barbarian invasions, and the consequent inability of the state to sufficiently respond. Classicist E.R. Dodds argues there was a growing perception in all parts of society that some sort of evil deity was responsible for these ills (Dodds 1965, 17), although this idea had earlier been outside of the traditional Greco-Roman religious conception. Another question which arose was, what purpose were humans meant to serve in this world? Polytheism accessible to the lower classes did not provide an answer to this question either.

The polytheism of the lower classes displayed in large part a transactional relationship between the divine and human. Individuals may have sought divine aid in specific circumstances and offered prayer and sacrifices when seeking divine favor either for their actions or to remedy an ill. But the polytheist worshippers had little emphasis on a standardized intimate relationship with the gods. Within Rome, imperial patronage did allow the poor to get some meat from sacrificed animals along with fellowship at polytheist festivals, but as MacMullen notes, these practices became increasingly uncommon as the empire became embattled during the third century (MacMullen 1981, 36–54). Without a strong hand to tend the religious festivals, transactional style polytheism offered little in the way of community to worshippers.

The polytheistic systems lacked a coherent uniting doctrine. As Fowden points out, polytheism could often provide answers to narrow scope questions, such as why peacocks have spotted tails, questions of a broader nature often lacked a clear and coherent answer (Fowden 2005, 522). What is the purpose of man was the sort of question polytheism struggled to answer, yet it was these sorts of concerns which were becoming more common in the age defined by anxiety (Dodds 1965, 132). These sorts of revelations were available only to those of sufficient means to devote their entire lives to philosophical contemplation. One such school of polytheist revelation was Neo-Platonism. Plotinus, a noted Neo-Platonic scholar, pondered the personal connection of individuals to the gods, and the personal relationships individuals may have with deities in his attempt to provide an answer. While Fowden notes that dualism was not a revolutionary idea at the time, when combined with the Neo-Platonic interests in purity, the renewed emphasis on dualism got at an unstated question underpinning Plotinus: why had the souls of individuals been sent to such an unenviable place as the Roman Empire during the crisis years? Plotinus provides two possible answers; either earth was a punishment for some earlier transgression of the soul in heaven, or the result of a false choice by the soul. Either way, the incarnation of the soul on earth was, in the words of Plotinus’s fellow Neo-Platonic philosopher Iamblichus, “unnatural.” MacMullen notes that a plausible interpretation of this issue was that humans had become guilty of some sorts of moral failings (MacMullen 1976, 13). To discover and correct these failings however required this depersonalization of divinity down to a power which required placation through inwardly directed moral piety. Plotinus, amongst other Neo-Platonists and other similarly ascetically oriented traditions considered a more individually aligned conception of the gods, indicative of a trend which would become increasingly central to religious devotion.

Plotonius taught that the divine permeated the world as one coherent network. Neo-Platonism provided the answer that the purpose of humans are here for “the self-realisation of God” or gods (Dodds, 1965, 22). Dualism was central to this accomplishment, because it was the soul, rather than the body, which achieved this realization. The body therefore only needed to be minimally sustained so that the individual could participate in his intellectual development. Asceticism becoming the preferred method for doing this, as it permitted the greatest allowance of contemplating the finer points of intellectual refinement while moderating bodily interference. This conception of the body does not entail its complete rejection, but rather a sort of tolerance and acceptance of the body. As Peter Brown puts it, the body “was not the true self,” instead a “perilous lower level of consciousness” the soul only occupied to its physical desires (Brown 2005, 608–9).

Peter Brown points out that these broad scope revelations came to polytheists at a glacial pace in large part because each thinker started from, if not the beginning, then quite near it (Brown 2005, 623). While communities certainly did form to further contemplate the broad questions, few individuals could afford to devote their entire selves to philosophy. Neo-Platonism also in no way offered a guarantee of revelation even for its practitioners, and the separation of ethics from spirituality set forth by Plotinus struck many of his would be follower as discomforting (Fowden 2005, 25). While Neo-Platonism as described by Plotinus did answer the anxiety-laden questions of the period, it was mainly polytheist philosophers, rather than ordinary people, who benefitted from these answers.

Christianity, by contrast, offered a far more accessible series of answers in its core texts. Christian doctrine employed similar conceptions of dualism and ascetic community to provide its answers to the questions of the age. However, the Christian ascetic communities were not necessarily organized around the revelations of a single leader. Instead of a reliance on an individual to deliver to his followers satisfactory answers, those answers were accessible to all in the form of the Bible. Brown argues that appeal of Christian doctrine, organized around written scripture rather than charismatic individuals, widened the appeal of the religion immensely. Christian doctrine guaranteed revelation simply by sincere acceptance of the necessary texts, rather than requiring potentially arduous contemplation, though this route remained for those seeking to further increase their understanding (Fowden 2005, 570). Simple acceptance of the text was likely more appealing to the lower classes, who lacked the means to apply themselves entirely to the study of scripture even if the desire existed. Individuals could find the answers they sought while retaining their worldly careers and other obligations, and had the additional benefit of Christian liturgy offering much in the way of corporeal social benefits the polytheist cults no longer provided. Christian congregations took it upon themselves to offer these services after the state could not (MacMullen 1981, 36–44, 53–54). The result was the genesis of Christian social networks within which there was only a surface level requirement of interaction with Christian doctrine. Those who sought to fully comprehend all facets of it were certainly encouraged, but to reap the benefits of the rising congregations a far lower level of devotion was all that was required.

These worldly benefits increased greatly after Christianity received official toleration from the emperor Constantine. Constantine engaged in a series of public works projects during his reign which benefitted the Christian church, all paid for out of the imperial treasury. These building projects had two effects, the provision of the church with a vast new amount of space within which to operate, and the demonstration of the sway followers of the faith now had within the empire (MacMullen 1984, 49). The significance of imperial toleration also cannot, in my view, be underestimated. The underlying message, when comparing the opulence of the Basilica of Constantine to the now modest by comparison temples of old, was clear.

However, it is equally important to consider how imperial subjects became aware of Christian doctrine and abandoned their traditional beliefs for it. The vast majority of the Roman population was composed of rural laborers. This sector of society was not drawn in by Neo-Platonism, but instead maintained the more transactional style of polytheist worship, and for whom manifest demonstrations of divine power carried more weight than philosophic arguments towards one deity over another. Conversion amongst these peoples was achieved by the demonstrations of a series of charismatic individuals devoted to the spreading of the faith, amongst them St. Martin of Tours.

St. Martin had been born in the early to mid-fourth century, and after leaving home, he enlisted in the army. Already a Christian, he became well liked amongst fellow soldiers and civilians for his demonstrable virtues. Eventually, he retired from service to form an ascetic Christian community in an abandoned villa near the city of Tours. His personal virtue also contributed to St. Martin being appointed bishop of Tours in 371 A.D. In his biography, written towards the end of his life by Sulpicius Severus, he is displayed using his personal charisma and self-assuredness in his faith to provide physical refutations of polytheism. Physical demonstration was essential, as it allowed St. Martin to meet the polytheists on their own terms.

While destroying a temple to some deity, St. Martin is confronted by an irate townsman who draws his sword to defend the temple. With St. Martin presenting his neck to the man, the man’s sword merely bounces off of St. Martin neck, the recoil throwing the man to the ground. In a more graphic episode, St. Martin is presented with the corpse of man who had died without baptism. By prayer alone, the man is revived, and becomes an ardent follower of St. Martin. The same is later done for a slave who had died by suicide (White 1988, 142). In another incident, a father stops St. Martin on the street to explain that his daughter is deathly ill and asks him to cure her. St. Martin at first begs off, explaining that the power of healing is reserved for God alone, but is eventually convinced to tend to the girl as she lay on her sickbed. Blessing her with oil, the girl was cured (White 1988, 149).

Sulpicius Severus intended the biography not only to be read simply by ascetics already convinced of the lifestyle, but also by polytheists unconvinced of the merits of Christianity though. Instead of offering an esoteric argument only accessible to those already learned in theology, Sulpicius instead meets the polytheists on their grounds, using their own epistemology against them by presenting polytheist religious themes with a Christian narrative (Stancliffe 1987, 73 – 78). Moreover, St. Martin is also depicted in himself as being similar to the rural polytheists; when elected to the bishopric, his appointment is opposed by some of the more vain and worldly bishops on grounds that St. Martin is too scruffy, and lacks the necessary cultural refinement to serve as bishop. St. Martin is depicted throughout as a man both similar to the common people with whom he interacts daily, but also above them because of his devotion to his faith. His conversion abilities rest in his demonstrated familiarity with how polytheism operated, and what sort of knowledge he might need to convince the polytheists of his offered religion. Claire Stancliffe asserts that St. Martin should not be interpreted as a miracle worker due to his demonstrations of divine power, but instead that the intent of Sulpicius is likely to allow comparisons to the early Apostles to be made (Stancliffe 1987, 157). In my view, another apt comparison comes in the mythicized Roman heroes, such as Mucius Scaevola. Both are willing to suffer greatly for their causes, which both lie somewhere between the mythic and material. There is no moment where St. Martin is unsure of his faith, and despite undergoing several religiously transformative events (baptism, episcopal consecration, and the establishment of the monastery), there is no change in his character (Stancliffe 1987, 150–151).

Sulpicius presents St. Martin acting as the leader of an ascetic Christian community, with around eighty members. Although these men chose to reject all trades and devote themselves entirely to religious worship and ministry, it was by no means required to do so to reap any benefits. To be a Christian, and to take advantage of what the Christian community offered, did not require a full surrendering of one’s self to the faith. St. Martin’s community serves as a demonstration that Christianity offered this choice; individuals were free to devote their lives to the study of scripture as they saw fit, but were equally free to continue their lives as normal, and join the community simply for the social benefits and metaphysical answers it offered without actively engaging in further metaphysical contributions. The emphasis, noted by Sulpicius, is on the experiential aspect, which required the charisma of uniquely capable leaders to deploy properly. The arguments put forth by leaders such as St. Martin then, in my view, would have appeared as less foreign, or at least easier to integrate into existing belief structures of polytheist individuals. Indeed, Origen of Alexandria admits a century before St. Martin that, for the bulk of the population, these sorts of physical demonstrations and arguments based on faith alone are sufficient to win converts (Dodds 1965, 122).

For all that may be said in praise of Christianity, equally responsible for its success in our period of discussion are the failings of polytheism. Dodds provides a succinct summation of this point; “One reason for the success of Christianity was simply the weakness and weariness of the opposition: paganism had lost faith both in science and in itself.” Dodds also notes that, by the fourth century, Roman polytheism appeared “a kind of living corpse” (Dodds 1965, 132). A degree of existential seriousness had descended onto a disparate group of religious cults which in no way were capable to directly addressing them, leaving polytheism particularly vulnerable to competing claims to truth, especially in an age where the strength of religion was defined in relation to constant and dramatic physical demonstrations (Brown 2005, 603). The intermingling of those seeking surface level answers and those engaged in deeper reflection also greatly benefitted the religion. Individuals such as St. Martin were wholly of the latter, but actively engaged the former. Evidence of the same from polytheism is lacking.

Christian communities offered a stable and welcoming community which posed few barriers to entry and was filled with individuals all working towards the same well-defined end. That polytheism did not provide the same is not an inherent failing of the system. Polytheism’s weakness was that it proved unable to adapt. Polytheists had seen no reason to change their beliefs in an age without anxiety, yet when the times changed, polytheism proved unable to adapt to the new religious demands. Christian doctrine and adherents then intervened to offer individuals what polytheism had never been required to in great quantity.

Although this has necessarily been a brief foray into the matter, the rise of Christianity appears to me as a twofold matter. First are the advantages Christianity held over polytheism, both in doctrine and the zeal of its adherents, as argued for by Fowden and Brown; but beneath them are the socio-political factors emphasized by Dodds and MacMullen. The worldly factors governed the changing metaphysical requirements of the age of anxiety, and were necessary for the doctrinal strengths noted by Fowden and Brown to flourish.


Brown, Peter. “Asceticism: pagan and Christian.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd ed., 13:601–31. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Brown, Peter. “Christianization and religious conflict.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd ed., 13:632–64. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Dodds, Eric Robertson. Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety. Cambridge: University Press, 1965.

Eutropius. Breviarium Ab Urbe Condita. Edited by Bruno Bleckmann and Jonathan Gross. Paderborn, Deutschland: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2018.

Fowden, Garth. “Polytheist religion and philosophy.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd ed., 13:538–60. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Fowden, Garth. “Religion, Culture, and Society.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd ed., 12:521–89. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianizing the Roman Empire (A.D. 100-400). New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

MacMullen, Ramsay, and Eugene N. Lane, eds. Paganism and Christianity, 100-425 C.E: a Sourcebook. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

MacMullen, Ramsay. Roman Governments Response to Crisis, AD 235-337. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

Stancliffe, Clare. St. Martin and His Hagiographer: History and Miracle in Sulpicius Severus. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

White, Carolinne, trans., ed. Early Christian Lives: Life of Antony by Athanasius, Life of Paul of Thebes by Jerome, Life of Hilarion by Jerome, Life of Malchus by Jerome, Life of Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus, Life of Benedict by Gregory the Great. London: Penguin Books, 1998





Sallustian vs. Ciceronian: Does America Need Morality or a Hero?

Contemporary political commentators draw a variety of lessons from the Catilinarian conspiracy, says Beth Eidam (’20), but one of the most salient is that a republic is more likely to prevail if its representatives practice restraint of power, of self, and of material desires.

 Joseph-Marie Vien (1716–1809), "The oath of Catiline" Oil on canvas (Wikimedia Commons)

Joseph-Marie Vien (1716–1809), “The oath of Catiline” Oil on canvas (Wikimedia Commons)

The relevance of the Greco-Roman classics in Europe and the United States today is largely due to their persistence in eighteenth-century Britain and America as pillars of the education system. The history of Rome, embedded into the education of the youth, raised generations of political leaders with a firm grounding in ancient governments. The American founding fathers studied the Roman Republic and explicitly based the United States Constitution on that model (Mounk 2018). In Britain, political debacles such as the South Sea Bubble presented the opportunity for criticism through a Roman lens (Hardy 2008). While the Roman Republic suffered no shortage of political scandals to draw from, when criticizing of their contemporary circumstances American and British commentators repeatedly referenced the Catilinarian Conspiracy in particular. In 63 BC, the Roman senator Lucius Sergius Catilina (or Catiline), with the help of a group of indebted fellow aristocrats and disaffected veterans of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, attempted to overthrow the consulship of Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Antonius Hybrida. Cicero exposed the plot, forcing Catiline to flee from Rome, and oversaw the execution (without trial) of the leading conspirators. The Roman historian Sallust chronicled the dramatic events of this conspiracy and its suppression twenty years or so after the events, and his work Catilinae Coniuratio remains an authority on the matter. Cicero’s speeches from the time, known as the four Catilinarian orations, survive as well, as do second-hand accounts of the affair by other ancient sources.

The popularity of the Catilinarian Conspiracy in eighteenth century and later political debate is due largely to the many varying interpretations of the affair. Hardy boils interpretations of the Catilinarian Conspiracy down to two basic approaches: the Sallustian and the Ciceronian. Influences from both the Sallustian and the Ciceronian readings can be seen in political commentaries throughout the eighteenth century and today, and show the malleability of this historical material and its utility in analyzing contemporary political controversies.

The Sallustian view reads the Roman source material as a critique of Roman decadence, excessive commercialism, and abusive politicians who value their own property at the expense of the common people. The title of this interpretation, “Sallustian,” comes from the historian’s own analysis of the conspiracy, which could easily be read as an invective against the moral depravity and luxury of the late Roman Republic. The historian framed his diagnosis of the late Republic in the antithetical comparison of Rome’s founders and his fellow citizens of first-century BC Rome. This comparison hinges upon the upright, community-based values that the Republic was built on. Sallust describes each founding virtue in opposition to a vice that he believed Catiline’s Rome cherished. One of the first virtues that Sallust praises is the humbleness of the kings who “were satisfied enough with their own things” (sua quoique satis placebant, 2.1). This ancient restraint (modestia) gave way to greed and arrogance as Rome engaged in foreign wars and grew (modestiaavaritiasuperbia. 2.2–5). The shift from humble to greedy leaders was a key transformation that bred a new kind of Roman, the wealthy individual. This path to decadence is a theme that both Sallust and modern critics identify as harbingers of governmental collapse.

Another virtue that Sallust places weight on is fairness (aequitas), which he praises in the context of war and justice (9.3). The antithesis of this virtue is cruelty (crudelitas), which asserted itself when “the republic grew, and savage nations and huge populations were subjugated by force” (10.1). The introduction of cruelty spelled disaster for Rome. What began abroad would soon infiltrate the city, and personal violence became a political tool in the days of the Gracchi (130s BC) and Sulla (80s BC). These are just two examples of the moral antitheses that Sallust presents as mile markers on the Republic’s road to collapse.

Eighteenth-century British commentators adopted the Sallustian view both when dissecting the Catilinarian Conspiracy itself and when diagnosing Britain’s own political situation. Algernon Sidney, a British Republican, posited that republican governments rest on foundations of virtue, and condemned the depraved climate of Rome that made Catiline’s plot possible. “They who by vice had exhausted their fortunes, could repair them only by bringing their country under a government that would give impunity to rapine…. When men’s minds are filled with this fury, they sacrifice the common good to the advancement of their private concerns” (Hardy 2008, 433–4). Here, recalling Sallust’s own thesis, Sidney places the blame for the political climate that bred a character such as Catiline on individual avarice.

Thomas Gordon similarly identifies virtue as the basis of a successful republic and cites a contemporary British crisis in his explanation of greed. Gordon’s discussion is situated in the South Sea Bubble crisis in England in the eighteenth century. The crisis developed out of a transfer of national debt to the private South Sea Company. This shot up the value of South Sea stocks, and individuals amassed fortunes overnight through insider trading. After intense and swift inflation, the bubble popped. Those fortunes disappeared overnight, and the stockholders understandably responded with anger. Gordon responded in the London Journal, calling to mind the Catilinarian Conspiracy to illustrate the greed of the stockholders and label the Earl of Sunderland a reborn Catiline (Hardy 2008, 436). Sunderland had been involved in the initial transfer of debt, therefore providing the opportunity for the swift enrichment of the stockholders. Catiline’s own driving motivation was the desire for quick money, although he intended this just for himself. As such, Sunderland’s magnanimous gesture can only partially be branded as Catilinarian. The value in this comparison was less in identifying a contemporary Catiline, and more in outing the greed of the stockholders that inflated the situation into a bigger disaster than it could have been.

The Sallustian view still carries relevance today, with journalists often referring to the importance of a virtue-based republic. Conservative education activist Joy Pullman names “virtues key to success” as the first item in a list of similarities between Rome and the United States today. Pullman cites piety, tradition, courage, honesty, and duty as the foundational virtues of the Roman Republic, and asserts that George Washington embodied those very values as America’s first leader. French journalist and opinion writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, however, asserts that it is difficult for modern Americans to adhere to the same values that its founders did, simply because we are no longer the same nation that the founders built. In the years since 1776, the US has undergone rapid expansion across the continental US, welcomed immigrants of diverse cultures, and adopted new values and traditions. Philadelphia school student Sonali Singh looks worryingly at the hyper-partisanship that destroyed the Roman Republic and points out that there seems to be little remaining consensus on what it means to be American.

The stance of conservatives like Pullman is reminiscent of the Elder Cato’s famous desire for traditional Roman mores to prevail. Centrists like Gobry and Singh appear less moralistic but less sure about a solution. Both parties realize the value of a virtue-based republic, but the former advocates for traditional values while the latter seems to predict that some political catastrophe might bring unwelcome change. Kerby Anderson appears to support Pullman’s camp, as he observes declines in sexual morality and family life that, in his eyes, will lead to judgement. Anderson cites an author whose research found that “cultures that held to a strong sexual ethic thrived and were more productive than cultures that were ‘sexually free.’” To me, that assertion feels very conservative. Where Anderson foresees a judgment for America that will force us to return to our traditional institutions, the less conservative writers predict a disaster that will make us self-reflect and adapt. Singh quotes Jim Barron who says, “we have to reach some kind of crisis, that’s when true change will occur.” The key word here is change. Conservative commentators seem to think that the solution is to return to the moral fortitude of our founding fathers. Their opposition proposes that we do not simply return to that set of virtues but make our own. This does not mean a complete rejection of those original values, as many are still valuable. This approach simply asks for a reworking of our founding virtues into a suitable set for the 21st century. We need to understand the values of the men and women who built and formed early America, but we also need to be willing to adapt them. The true folly of the Roman Republic was, as Lily Rothman argues, its unwillingness to change.

Ciceronian interpretations that read the ancient affair as a model for enlightened leadership and how a republic should respond to a threat like Catiline also pervade medieval and modern political thought (Hardy 2008, 433). But who is that model of leadership? And who is the real villain? The name of the camp implies that the hero should be Cicero, although Sallust might disagree. Cicero is largely absent from Sallust’s account of the conspiracy. Instead, Caesar and Cato the Younger, “duo viri, ingenti animo” are afforded lengthy speeches, and Sallust devotes paragraphs to describing their admirable characters (53.25). Between the two men, Sallust seems to think that Cato was the true hero of the affair. Cato and Sallust had similar moral standards. Both were disgusted by public displays of wealth and personal enrichment of governors from provinces. So it is no surprise that Sallust made his moral ally the hero of Bellum Catilinae. In opposition to this, Costanzo Felici, an Italian humanist, rewrote his own De Coniuratione Catilinae in the sixteenth-century that praises Cicero and places him at the center of resolving the conflict (Hardy 2008, 432). Felici felt that Cicero was slighted in Sallust’s account of the conspiracy, and wanted to use the affair as an example of a powerful leader rather than a moral diagnosis. Cicero’s final decision to put the conspirators to death characterized a stronger leader for Felici than Cato, who was known only for giving a speech in the ancient sources. The ambiguity of the protagonist allowed early commentators to choose their heroes, and modern commentators continue to utilize the characters of the conspiracy in a game that either endorses or condemns their target.

One of the most popular manifestations of this “name game” occurred in 2014 when Ted Cruz adapted and delivered Cicero’s In Catilinam 1 as an attack against President Obama’s immigration reforms. Cruz’s intention, no doubt, was to paint himself as the brave Cicero who revealed the plots of a corrupt Catiline, in this case Obama. Cruz assumed that Cicero was the hero of his day and that he would earn respect himself by repeating the orator’s speech. It leads the classicist to wonder whether Cruz had read Sallust or was aware of the backlash and exile Cicero received for his treatment of the conspirators, but that is not the purpose of this paper. The only identifiable similarity between Catiline and Obama is that both acted on behalf of people marginalized by legal and political processes, Catiline advocating for debtors and Obama defending illegal immigrants under threat of deportation. The problem is, Catiline did not actually represent the disenfranchised. As ancient historian P.A. Brunt interprets the sources, Catiline only hoped and fought for a redistribution of property to restore his own wealth (P.A.Brunt, “The Conspiracy of Catiline,” History Today 13 [1963] 14–21). Cruz’s attack on Obama failed as he could not with any strength liken Obama to Catiline.

One thing that neither the Sallustian nor Ciceronian interpretations seem to grasp are the historical factors that led to the fall of Rome. While this paper focuses more on the two camps above, I will attempt to briefly summarize the conditions that neither interpretation discloses. Gobry and Pullman both identify class conflict as one of the driving forces of the fall of the Roman Republic. P.A. Brunt agrees, and briefly describes this class divide in terms of representation, asserting that “within the Senate a narrow circle of noble landowners were usually dominant…[and] the mass of citizens…were subject to too many checks to permit them to assume the actual tasks of government (Brunt, p.14). As the empire grew and veterans returned from foreign wars, the land crisis exacerbated class divides as the wealthy strove to protect their fortunes and the poor were ousted from rural jobs. The land crisis provided a popular platform for the Gracchi, whose violent murders broke the stigma around power politics and made violence a political tool in Rome (emphasized by Mounk). The crisis was so dire that the effects were felt for decades, in fact, many of Catiline’s supporters were farmers looking to get rich quickly in the aftermath of the land crisis (Brunt, p. 17).

Modern political commentators are noticing the same chain of events developing in the United States today, though perhaps not to such an intense degree. While American class conflict is not necessarily over land allotments or veterans, there is certainly a glaring divide between the 1% and the poor. Although there has been a rise in political violence in the United States in recent years, it is not as dire as it was in the 1960s, and certainly not on par with Rome in the first century BC. Most commentators agree that the physical state of America today does not yet call for a revolutionary dictator such as Caesar to reorganize the entire foundation of our government. However, perhaps we are in the early years of our own Sullan era, and if we are self-aware enough to adapt we could avoid a Caesar entirely.

Between the two basic interpretations, Sallustian and Ciceronian, I find the former more indicative of the social and political factors behind the Catilinarian Conspiracy and the fall of a republic. I find it less useful to spend time arguing over hero and villain, and see more value in understanding the psyche of the players. In the luxuria of the late Roman Republic and in our modern age of capitalism and gross material accumulation, I find Sallust’s call for modestia most salient. Sallust and Sidney’s diagnoses of individual greed in the Roman Republic speak more to Catiline’s intentions with the conspiracy than did his political platform. Catiline felt slighted by losing the consulship and angry at his own poverty. His motive was desire for status and wealth, not to save the republic. A republic is more likely to prevail if its representatives practice restraint of power, of self, and of material desires. Not to say that American politicians should not desire nice houses within a short commute to the capital, but when bribery becomes part of the acquisition of those desires, or any amount of material wealth never seems to be enough, then modestia should be prioritized.

Similarly, equity seems to be an extremely important value for a successful republic. Sallust described aequitas in conjunction with the justice system, which is something the United States should strive to practice today. There is so much racist and classist inequality in the execution of justice in America that it delegitimizes our justice system. Mary Beard conceded that Rome had no “basic police force” for maintaining order, the United States has a well-developed police force but that does not mean it is utilized in the best way. If our justice system exercised more aequitas, perhaps some of the public violence we see so often now would yield.

I also think there is advantage in identifying which vices of the Roman Republic ought to be avoided by a republic hoping for longevity. Cato’s speech in Bellum Catilinae does this well. Just before Cato demands capital punishment for the conspirators, he discusses the obligation of the senators to protect Rome. Cato asserts that sloth and laziness are not the virtues of a strong Republic, rather that longevity is secured “by vigilance, action, and a good plan” (52.29). Cato condemns socordia and ignavia in the senators, but I think these vices apply to civilians as well. A republic whose population is complicit and idly stands by while powerful representatives play with their fate is doomed to fail. Cato calls for a citizenry who will question authority and take action against unjust governance.  This feels similar to Gobry and Singh’s desire for Americans to take charge of reevaluating their own morality.

The most salient lessons to be learned from the Catilinarian Conspiracy are moral. Sallust, eighteenth-century scholars, and modern political commentators have done the hardest work for us in diagnosing the virtues and vices of the Roman Republic and tracking their presence in politics throughout time. All that is left is for all Americans, from the president, to Congress, to every member of this “great melting pot” to take advantage of this wealth of information. In reflecting on the virtues of the founding fathers and identifying the most important values for 21st century America, certainly some of George Washington’s legendary virtues like honesty and duty should be maintained. However, we also need to prioritize new values that specifically address the problems of the 21st-century, such as restraint and equality. I have confidence that Americans have enough patriotism to want to save our republic and I believe checking our morality is the first step.


Summer Funding Opportunities for Dickinson Classics Students

Thanks to the generosity of the family of Christopher Roberts (’75) the Department of Classical Studies offers funding to Dickinson classics students for summer study in Greece and Italy. The Christopher Roberts Travel Prize has enabled current and just graduated students (summer after senior year) to attend a variety of programs in recent years. Below is a list of high quality summer programs in Greece and Italy that we recommend.

To apply, please email Prof. Francese (francese _at_ dickinson.edu) as soon as possible, at any rate by January 1, 2020, with the name of the program you are interested in and how it fits into your academic program and plans.College students in ROme in front of the colossal head of Constantine.

Athenian Agora Summer Excavation

American School at Athens Summer Session

American Academy in Rome Classical Summer School

Greek in Greece–University of Patras

Vergilian Society Tours

Boston University Summer Study in Athens

Paideia Institute Living Latin in Rome


Dickinson Classics Professors Honored by Guanqi Center

Professors Francese and Mastrangelo have been named honorary fellows at the Guangqi Center for International Scholars at Shanghai Normal University in recognition for an ongoing collaboration that has resulted in several global conferences and publications.


The relationship between Dickinson and the Guangqi Center began in 2015 with a conference at Shanghai Normal University organized by DePauw University classics Professor Jinyu Liu. This meeting resulted in the founding of Dickinson Classics Online (DCO) to provide resources for Chinese students of the Greco-Roman classics, including texts and commentaries, essays, and dictionaries. It is the sister project to Dickinson College Commentaries (DCC). At the initial meeting the editorial board created of the Chinese version of the DCC Core Greek and Latin Vocabulary lists. Subsequent publications have included editions of several Latin texts with Chinese notes and translations.

Prof. Jinyu Liu discusses her Chinese translation of Ovid, Tristia 3.9 published at Dickinson Classics Online (May 23, 2019)
Prof. Jinyu Liu discusses her Chinese translation of Ovid, Tristia 3.9 published at Dickinson Classics Online (May 23, 2019)

On the Dickinson side these initiatives are funded by the Dean’s Office (which supported the initial 2015 conference) and the Roberts Fund for Classical Studies. The 2017 global conference in Shanghai celebrating the bi-millennium of Ovid’s death was supported by  the Chinese National Social Science Foundation’s Major Grant (2015-2020), “Translating the Complete Corpus of Ovid’s poetry into Chinese with Commentaries,” led by Prof. Liu and other members of the DCO board. First results from this major translation project have also been published on DCO.

The 2019 colloquium, just completed, took place at the Columbia University Global Center Beijing, and was co-sponsored by Columbia, Dickinson, and the Chinese Ovid Project. It brought together a group of Chinese classicists working on the Ovid project, distinguished western Latinists including Gareth Williams of Columbia and Stephen Heyworth of Oxford University, and noted East Asian Studies scholar Wiebke Denecke of Boston University. The group discussed the problems of making Ovid speak Chinese, the potential of a truly global approach to pre-modern literatures, and the role of Digital Humanities in the future of global classicism.

Ongoing projects of the Dickinson-Guangqi collaboration include the digitization, led by Prof. Francese, of Affonso Gonçalves’ Lexicon Magnum Latino-Sinicum (1841) the largest Latin-Chinese dictionary in existence (sample here), and a long-term project to digitize the massive synoptic guide to pre-modern Chinese literature, the Cursus Litteraturae Sinicae (1879) of the Italian Jesuit Angelo Zottoli. A team led by Prof. Mastrangelo is working on a Hellenica, a series of ancient Greek texts that tell the history of the 5th century BC and the Peloponnesian War.

Professor Mastrangelo and I are profoundly grateful to the Guangqi Center for this honor and recognition, and look forward to many years of fruitful collaboration to come.

Colloquium "Ovid and the Latin Classics in Chinese", Columbia Beijing Center, May 20-24, 2019
Prof. Francese discussing digital humanities at the Colloquium “Ovid and the Latin Classics in Chinese”, Columbia Beijing Center, May 20-24, 2019
Participants in Colloquium "Ovid and the Latin Classics in Chinese", Columbia Beijing Center, May 20-24, 2019
Participants in the Colloquium “Ovid and the Latin Classics in Chinese”, Columbia Beijing Center, May 20-24, 2019
Chris Francese and Marc Mastrangelo at the Great Wall, May 26, 2019.
Chris Francese and Marc Mastrangelo at the Great Wall, May 25, 2019.


A Walk with Vergil: Esther Popel Shaw’s Journey with Latin in Dickinson College at the Turn of the 20th Century

Dickinson’s first female African-American student Esther Popel Shaw (1896-1958) was a devoted Latin student, and thirty years after graduation she named classicist Mervin G. Filler as a favorite professor. In the spring of 2017 Michelle E. Hoffer (’17) wrote about the academic experiences of Popel Shaw, with a focus on how she would have encountered the Aeneid. This research was carried out in the archives at Dickinson College with assistance from archivist James Gerencser, and the essay was written as part of the Vergil seminar taught by Prof. Francese.

My research focuses on Esther Popel Shaw, the first African American woman to graduate from Dickinson College, and her journey with the Classics, particularly Vergil’s Aeneid. By examining Aeneid commentaries of the time, as well as archived academic documents such as course catalogs and entrance requirements, I will attempt to reconstruct Esther Popel Shaw’s experience with Vergil at the turn of the twentieth century. I will attempt to paint a picture of her journey through the Latin Scientific Curriculum from 1915-1919, specifically insofar as she was taught to read and interpret the Aeneid and other ancient Latin texts. Ultimately, I aim to answer the question,
“Why were people at this time reading the Aeneid?”

Esther Popel Shaw was born in Harrisburg on July 16th, 1896 and was the first African American woman to both enroll in and graduate from Dickinson College. She graduated from Central High School in 1915 and enrolled at Dickinson the following fall.1 Because Dickinson banned African Americans from living on campus at the time, Esther commuted from Harrisburg each day, electing to pursue the Latin Scientific Course (LSC) of study, which was the same as the Classical Course, but instead of taking Ancient Greek, students in the LSC replaced the Greek with additional studies in modern languages and sciences.2

Esther herself chose to study French, German, Latin, and Spanish.3 An incredibly diligent student, Shaw received both the John Patton Memorial Prize, “an academic award granted annually to one student from each class”.4 and, upon her graduation from Dickinson in 1919, was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, one of America’s most prestigious undergraduate honors societies. While Shaw held a few jobs following graduation, she spent the majority of her career as a teacher in the Washington DC area, where she taught classes ranging from French, Spanish, and English to algebra and penmanship.5 In addition to teaching, Shaw was also a very well-known poet of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as an active community member for both African American and women’s issues.

In the fall of 1915, Esther began her journey at Dickinson. And, while she only mentions Latin twice in her diary from her senior year of high school,6 we can surmise from those entries that she had a solid foundation in Latin by the time she enrolled at Dickinson. This foundation may have been a contributing factor in her decision to pursue the Latin Scientific Curriculum, which was taught in large part by Professor Mervin Grant Filler, a man whose reputation still rings through the lobby of the current Classical Studies Department, as it is named in his honor. To say he was a legend both in the Classics and at Dickinson, would be an understatement. Not only was he an brilliant scholar, but was also beloved by his students and his community, as in Shaw’s alumni survey which she completed over 30 years after graduation, she mentions him by name, saying that he gave her both “inspiration and mental stimulation” and considers herself “fortunate” to have been one of his students.7

Grant himself was a true Dickinsonian, as he attended both the Dickinson Preparatory School and then in 1889, enrolled at Dickinson College, graduating both as valedictorian and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa.8 After graduation, he went on to teach Latin and Greek at the Preparatory School and then in 1899 became the professor of Latin at Dickinson College for an impressive 29 years, in which time he was also Dickinson’s 18th president. It was in 1915 that he would have met Shaw, and was very likely the only Latin professor she had in her time at Dickinson. Based on her course of study, records show that Shaw would have taken Vergil her junior year of college with Professor Grant. In his course, Grant stressed Vergil’s “works, life, and literary influence, and readings from the Eclogues and Aeneid VII-XII.”.9 The course was three hours per week for the first half of the year. The second half was devoted to Horace, Satires and Epistles. Through an archived bookstore request from Professor Filler, it is mostly like that in her study of the Aeneid, Shaw would have studied from The Greater Poems of Virgil: Vol. 1, Aeneid I-VI by Greenough and Kittredge, published in 1895.

However, just as today, the Aeneid is open to incredible amounts of interpretation. Thus, in order to reconstruct how Shaw may have been taught to view this great work, it is necessary to examine both the Greenough text, other commentaries of the time, and the competing cultural climates at Dickinson itself. In the early 1900s, Latin was still an entrance requirement for Dickinson, including “six books of the Aeneid” and “reading at sight of easy passages from Caesar, Cicero, and Vergil” for those wanting to pursue either the Classical or Latin Scientific Courses of study. This makes sense then why Professor Filler’s course specifically focuses on books VII-XII, as students were expected to be extremely well versed with the first six upon completing high school. Both of these facts show how valued the Classics still were in academia, both high school and undergraduate. Even in a public high school, students were being drilled and versed in the Latin so that they might be prepared for college, a far cry from the public school curriculum of today, in which students are lucky if they even get a single year of Latin. However, in Shaw’s time, Latin was still considered an important part of learning any language, and at least at Dickinson, was required to some extent for every major. Another now antiquated requirement was that of religion classes. From its roots, Dickinson was a religiously affiliated institution, in which students were required to not only take Bible classes, but were also “required to attend Church twice on the Sabbath. The place of worship, however, [was] left to their own discretion, or that of their parents or guardians.”10 And, while these two lost elements of Dickinson life and study may seem unrelated, they share many surprising ties.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Christianity was still very prevalent even in secular life, and people sought biblical meaning even in pagan things, the Aeneid as only one example. While it is impossible that Vergil intended Aeneas to be a Christ-figure, many commentaries in the late 1800s and early 1900s attempt to some level to make this connection. As John Campbell Shairp, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, says in his 1881 book Aspects of Poetry,

There is in Virgil a vein of thought and sentiment more devout, more humane, more akin to the Christian, than is to be found in any other ancient poet, whether Greek or Roman. The religious feeling which Virgil preserved in his own heart is made the more conspicuous, when we remember amidst what almost overpowering difficulties it was that he preserved it.11

Henry Frieze echoes a similar sentiment in his 1902 commentary, saying in part that

[Aeneas] is intended to be the embodiment of the courage of an ancient hero, the justice of a paternal ruler, the mild humanity of a cultivated man living in an age of advanced civilization, the saintiness of the founder of a new religion of peace and pure observance, the affection of parent and child which was one of the strongest instincts in the Italian race. The strength required in such an instrument is the strength of faith, submission, patience, and endurance.12

While no one can be sure whether Frieze intended for his words to have a religious flavor, he describes Aeneas in a way that sounds eerily parallel to that of Jesus Christ, even mentioning a “new religion of peace” and that Aeneas was an “instrument of strength and faith.” Even if this was not his intention, it certainly highlights the extent to which academic thought of that period was steeped in Christianity. In fact, this view of the Classics continued up even into post- revolutionary America, in which Caroline Winterer claims that,

The Aeneid also offered boys lessons about heroism, imperial expansion, quasi-Christian virtue, and the stoic acceptance of fate. Although the lessons in the Aeneid were not inherently more applicable to republicanism than to monarchism, Americans during and after the revolutionary era applied its themes to their project of creating a republican, Christian nation.13

Thus, throughout early American history, ancient texts were read with an eye for modern religious and sometimes political parallels, as people were desperately attempting to make these epics fit the mold of their current lives, perhaps hoping to give their own experiences deeper meaning.

With this perspective of both Dickinson and early American religious climate, it becomes much easier to reconstruct what Esther Popel Shaw might have been taught in her classes with Professor Filler on the Aeneid and how she might have been pressed to interpret them. In the Greenough-Kittredge version that she likely used, while there is no specific Christ/Christian connection made, there is both a political and religious motive attributed to Vergil’s work. The introduction declares that the Aeneid “was not written merely as a work of art, nor from a casual poetic inspiration. It is the product of a patriotic national sentiment and a belief in the divine origin and destiny of the Roman State religion.”14 Once again, political and religious motive are associated with the text and, based off of the other commentaries of the time, it is likely that Shaw would have been pressed not only to see the work through a Christian worldview, but also to apply the Aeneid to her own political and religious surroundings and search for modern-day parallels.

Today, the dialogue has shifted away from religion and onto many different branches of academic thought. Some scholars are fascinated by the underlying political message of the work, attempting to examine the ways in which socialist and democratic nations interpret the Aeneid to fit their own political structures.15 Other scholars shift the focus onto Aeneas as a hero, attempting to justify his portrayal within the larger context of epic heroes.16 And still others, like Peter Jones, take a much more multifaceted approach, examining not only Aeneas as a hero, but also Vergil and his style and his possible motivations. Perhaps Jones’ most brilliant observation in his introduction is his comparison of Aeneas to a modern hero. He says that, “Aeneas is a man who must learn to submit to the will of the gods, a response wholly at odds with much of today’s ‘culture’ which insists that following the devices and desires of one’s own heart represents the very zenith of human achievement.”17 Not only is he perfectly witty, but he also makes an astute point about the dangers of trying to force Aeneas to fit any modern conception of what it means to be a hero. Aeneas is not from our time, and he is not meant to be. Instead of desperately trying to thrust him into a mold in which he simply does not belong, we must try to use him as a model of ancient values, always keeping him within the context he was meant. There are many qualities of Aeneas’, such as determination, passion, and patience, that are still very applicable to modern life; however, if we attempt to base his worth as a hero off of some sort of one-to-one comparison with the superheroes of today, he will fade into the background, utterly misunderstood.

So, to finally answer the question, “Why were people at this time reading the Aeneid?” I must turn to Professor Robert S. Conway’s lecture, which he delivered in 1931, on the bi-millennium of Vergil’s birth. His lecture, which was titled “Poetry and Government: A Study of the Power of Vergil” ends with a call to keep the Classics strong and alive for future generations. He says, “Let us see to it that our successors may have the privilege that has been given to us of hearing the great voices that older times speak in their own accents across the silent years, of being quickened by them to know the gold from the dross, of learning from them what is simple, what is high, what is human, what is true.”18 This answer not only answers why people in Shaw’s day read Vergil, but is also just as applicable to Latinists and Classicists today. Conway understands that if we lose the ability to understand the Classics, we also lose the ability to understand the past, to understand people who somehow saw the world through a clearer lens. To Conway, these are not merely stories but windows into truth and beauty and goodness. They teach us virtues even without our knowing, like that of hard work as we struggle through the Latin, and persistence as we try to peel back the layers of meaning in each word. Conway does not see Vergil as antiquated, but as timeless. Vergil’s words stand as pillars of truth as much today as they ever did, for he showed us through his bright words and gentle verse how to be brave, how to be patient, how to be weak, and most of all how to be truly, painfully human.

1. Doran, Malinda Triller. “Esther Popel Shaw (1896-1958).” Esther Popel Shaw (1896-1958) Dickinson College. 2013. Accessed April 05, 2017. http://archives.dickinson.edu/people/esther-popel-shaw-1896-1958.
2. “Courses of Study,” Catalogue of Dickinson College (1916-1917): 15. The Classical Course of study consisted of four hours of both Latin and Greek per week freshman year, and then an elective three hours per week for the rest of the course.
3. Doran, Malinda Triller. “Esther Popel Shaw (1896-1958).” Esther Popel Shaw (1896-
1958) Dickinson College. 2013. Accessed April 05, 2017. http://archives.dickinson.edu/people/esther-popel-shaw-1896-1958.

4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. In a diary entry from Friday, June 19, 1914 she tells how her junior year report card had just come in the mail, specifically stating that she received a B in Virgil. Then again on Monday, September 28, 1914 she says that she “had a test in Greek History & rec’d a test paper in Latin in which I got a B.”
7. Esther Popel Shaw’s Alumni Questionnaire which she filled out in January of 1955.
8. Dickinson College Archives. “Mervin Grant Filler (1873-1931).” Mervin Grant Filler (1873-1931) Dickinson College. 2005. Accessed April 05, 2017. http://archives.dickinson.edu/people/mervin-grant-filler-1873-1931.
9. “Latin Language and Literature,” Catalogue of Dickinson College (1916-1917): 31.
10. “Public Worship,” Catalogue of Dickinson College (1834-1835): 14.
11. John Campbell Shairp, Aspects of poetry; being lectures delivered at Oxford (New
York, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894), 140.

12. Virgil, Walter Dennison, and Henry Frieze, Virgil’s Aeneid. Books. I.-XII. (New York,
American Book Company, 1902), 21.

13.Caroline Winterer, “Why Did American Women Read the Aeneid,” in Blackwell
Companions to the Ancient World Series: A Companion to Vergil’s Aeneid and its
Tradition 2010, ed. Joseph Farrell and Michael C. J. Putnam (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-
Blackwell, 2010), 368.

14. Virgil, Walter Dennison, and Henry Frieze, Virgil’s Aeneid. Books. I.-XII. (New York,
American Book Company, 1902), 21. J.B. Greenough, and G.L. Kittredge, The Greater Poems of Virgil: Vol. 1, Aeneid I-VI.
(Boston, Ginn & Company, 1895), 34-35.

15. Ernst A. Schmidt, “The Meaning of Vergil’s “Aeneid:” American and German
Approaches,” Classical World 94 (2001), pp. 145-171.

16. Adam Parry, “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid,” Arion 2 (1963), pp. 66-80.
17. Peter Jones, Reading Virgil: Aeneid I and II. (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2011), 27.

18. Robert Seymour Conway, Makers of Europe (Cambridge, Harvard University Press,
1931), 83.

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.


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