Bringing ancient Rome to life

| September 12, 2019

Whether it’s back stabbing intrigue, shiny armour and swords, decadent rulers and erotic banquets, or bawdy jokes – Ancient Roman history has something for everyone.

It’s no surprise then that it has long fascinated filmmakers.

But, which movie or TV adaptions of Ancient Rome do historians like the most? We asked four experts to nominate their favourite, or not so favourite, screen visions of Ancient Rome.

Dr Maxx Schmitz, Rome, Season 1 (2005)

Perhaps one of the best modern screen interpretations of Ancient Rome is the HBO series Rome.

Although it has clear failings – the lack of context for the political strife between the Senate and Caesar in the first season, and some clear inaccuracies (Caesar and his rival Pompey were never co-consuls) – I love the look and feel of the series overall.

The military scenes are thin on the ground, probably due to the tight budget, but are nevertheless excellent.

The fact that Caesar’s legionaries are actually depicted wearing lorica hamata (chain mail armour) as they would have historically, and not the more iconic, easily made, but later, lorica segmentata (segmented plate) armour, is a detail often overlooked in movies about this period.

The depiction of troops rotating into and out of the Roman front line in combat is another detail rarely seen on television or in the movies.

That said the biggest attraction for me are the beautiful shots of Rome and daily life that often form the backdrop to events in the series. The vibrant colours of the buildings and painted statues are as they would have appeared, even down to the detail of the somewhat lewd (to modern sensibilities) graffiti.

Perhaps the least appealing element of this show was the fact that they tried to compact so much history into one season and as a result had to gloss over a great many events and contextualising detail.

But then, it is a TV show.

Dr Kit Morrell, Julius Caesar (2002)

For sheer melodrama, when it comes to ancient Roman movie scenes, I can’t go past Richard Harris as the Roman dictator Sulla, quaffing wine in the bath as he demands another execution, only to succumb to a heart attack.

According to one contemporary, Sulla resembled nothing more than “a mulberry dusted with oatmeal”, and Harris empurples splendidly as he sinks into the wine-stained water.

This made-for-TV miniseries actually starts off well from the perspective of any student of the Roman Republic, posing some interesting political questions. Did the Senate represent the people? Were Sulla’s executions in accordance with Roman law?

Unfortunately, this interest in constitutional propriety doesn’t extend to the film’s plot.

Roman politics is reduced to a long personal contest between Caesar and his rival Pompey for control of Rome and its legions. The vital link between elected office and political power, and indeed the elections themselves, seem not to exist in this vision of Rome.

Instead we get soapy vignettes (often fictional) of domestic life – Caesar out shopping in the forum with his daughter Julia, or hooking up with his wife-to-be Calpurnia after she assists him during an epileptic fit – and rather heavy-handed attempts to establish Caesar as a hero and visionary.

Given that the eventual civil war between Caesar and Pompey was largely a dispute over public law, this isn’t only inaccurate but is also a missed opportunity for real drama.

The essence of the Roman republic (traditionally founded in 509 BCE after the expulsion of the last king) was the sharing of the highest power between two annually-elected consuls.

To portray Rome as being under one-man rule from Sulla onwards (Sulla’s dictatorship followed by Pompey as a kind of permanent sole consul) obscures why Caesar’s dictatorship was so offensive to the Roman governing class.

And, ultimately, why a group of Caesar’s own friends were moved to assassinate him on the Ides of March 44.

Professor Tim Parkin – Life Of Brian (1979)

My favourite ancient history movie? My first thought was to choose Ridley Scott’s Gladiator with Russell Crowe.

When I first saw it with friends I was underwhelmed (I am not a fan of Russell Crowe, despite sharing his country of birth). But, when I took a class of Roman social history undergraduates a few weeks later we all absolutely loved it, from the very first battle scene on.

Enthusiastic company clearly makes a difference.

But, on reflection, the film I love most would have to be Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and not just for the famous “What have the Romans ever done for us?” episode, or the lovely range of fast food available at the arena: “Wolf nipple chips. Get ‘em while they’re hot!”

For the classicist, there is the wonderful scene where Brian gets a lesson in Latin grammar from a Roman soldier after being caught painting graffiti to the effect that the Romans should go home – “Romanes eunt domus?” I don’t think so.

When Brian takes a wild stab that the dative should be used to express motion towards (‘towards home’), John Cleese’s Roman soldier draws his sword, something all Latin teachers would do if they could, aghast at a student making just this error.

Motion towards is NEVER expressed with the dative case; use the accusative with or without a preposition.

When released in 1979 the film caused quite a fracas, of course, though not for the Latin.

But to be honest, the satire of religion strikes me as more affectionate than mocking – in spoofing the Sermon on the Mount a character is made to mishear a line from the Beatitudes as “Blessed are the cheesemakers” before correcting. “Oh, it’s the meek! Blessed are the meek! Oh, that’s nice, isn’t it? I’m glad they’re getting something, ‘cause they have a hell of a time.”

The film has, however, stood the test of time very well, and unlike Gladiator, never takes itself too seriously.

Associate Professor Frederik Vervaet – Spartacus (2010-2013)

Some fifty years after Stanley Kubrick’s epochal movie featuring the now-centenarian Kirk Douglas (born in 1916) who, as a son of poor Jewish immigrants from the Tarist Empire reportedly closely identified with his lead character, STARZ came up with a television series that eventually spanned four seasons on the life and times of Roman history’s greatest slave leader.

Those able to put up with lots of steamy action and gory, if often comically stylised, violence will get some terrific value out of the TV series, Spartacus.

Apart from some genuine liberties in the final season – but then the Roman sources did in all likelihood repress any traces of the negotiations with Spartacus and his formidable band of freedom fighters – the narrative closely follows the known history, and the casting and setting are excellent.

The series paints a compelling picture of the social peculiarities and hardships of gladiatorial life, as well as the lives of the aspiring municipal aristocracy and the entrepreneurial upstarts of regional Capua, at this time a major city south of Rome.

It also presents the breathtaking arrogance of the Roman nobility – in this case chiefly the family of M. Licinius Crassus, a ruthless power-broker and plutocrat par excellence of the late Republic.

The language used also makes a hilarious and quite successful attempt at mimicking some of the Latin mannerisms – more than one oath is taken by the unsuspecting private parts of Jupiter Best and Greatest.

As someone who has done extensive research on the slave wars of the late Republic, as well as Crassus’ role in suppressing Spartacus’ revolt – he battled the rebels with an army of eight legions, only two less than Caesar needed to conquer Gaul – I personally much enjoyed this series and would enthusiastically recommend it to all but the faint or prudish of heart.

Want to meet some Ancient Romans? On Friday 13 September, re-enactors will bring Ancient Rome to life at the University of Melbourne, complete with Legionnaires, in a public display from 1pm to 3pm.  This article was published by Pursuit.

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