Feature: Rome on Film

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All Roads Lead to Rome

In the same way that the real world, from Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire to the Soviet Union’s Cold War hegemony over half of Europe, has continually sought to recreate some semblance of the Roman Empire, the filmic world has long held a fascination with the opulence, power, and brutality of Ancient Rome. But, more than simply harnessing the spectacle of the fallen Empire, resurrections of Rome on celluloid have, since the dawn of the medium, been used to comment on contemporary issues. As film theorist Pierre Sorlin puts it, ‘The main advantage of history is that it allows people to describe the present time in a free, imaginary way.’

Allegory, of course, is a versatile art, but portrayals of Rome carry more metaphorical weight than any pure fiction ever could. The Roman Empire, with its views on slavery, its persecutions, and its eventual fall, is a morality tale with the world as its stage and billions as its cast. Its shadow continues to be felt in the modern world in the form of our systems of law and government, our art, architecture, and even our language itself. Rome conjures images of power, beauty, brutality, and lust, representing both the best and worst sides of human nature simultaneously. It is every facet of humanity personified by a city of marble and rivers of blood; a spectacle that both fascinates and disgusts in equal measure.

Shards of an Empire

Unsurprisingly, it was the Italians, surrounded by the grand physical remnants of the fallen Empire in the form of the Colloseum, the Via Appia, and the Pantheon, as well as the cultural memory of a more glorious past, who first sought to recreate Rome in the filmic realm.

But, the creation of these Italian epics was merely part of a larger effort to forge a sound national identity following centuries of foreign domination and a tumultuous unification process. Spanning some fifty years and encompassing no less than three wars of independence, the creation of the modern Italian state in 1871 was far from a simple coming together of peoples.

As historian Mary Wood puts it, ‘Italy became a nation after centuries in which regional identities, centred on historical cities, shaped the allegiances and self-image of its inhabitants.’ To counter this fragmentation of identity, the early Italian filmmakers reached back to a time where Italy was both unified and immensely powerful. Envisioning the Roman Empire with bombast and romanticism, they crafted films that were essentially Nationalism committed to celluloid.

The first Italian epic to truly capture the public consciousness came in 1912, when Enrico Guazonni’s tale of early Christian persecution, Quo Vadis, conjured both the decadence and cruelty of Nero’s Rome. With a running time of just under two hours, Guazonni’s opus introduced many of what were to become the archetypes of the genre – vast throngs of citizens, the infamous lions of the Colloseum, and even the burning of the city itself.

But, it was Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria, released shortly before the outbreak of WWI, which was to prove the most influential of the early Roman epics. As well as providing the template for an entire generation of sword-and-sandal movies, Italian or otherwise, Cabiria cemented the notion that Italy’s fascination with reproducing its Imperial past was a by-product of its contemporary nationalistic aims.

Set during the Second Punic War, Cabiria follows the conflict between the Roman Empire and its nemesis, Carthage – present-day North Africa – for control of the Mediterranean. But, beneath this simple tale lies a systematic attempt to filter the politics of the ancient world, in which the Roman Empire was dominant, into contemporary notions of Italy. By directly contrasting the barbaric nature of Carthaginian society – the titular character, a young girl, is nearly sacrificed to the pagan God Moloch – with the nobility of Roman culture, Cabiria sought to justify the Turko-Italian War of 1911, in which the Italians captured the provinces of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania (modern-day Libya).

Through reaching into antiquity and envisioning the modern day Italians, like their ancestors, as a ‘civilising’ force in Africa, Pastrone used the filmic representation of ancient Rome to suggest the possibility of an Imperial resurrection of the Empire in the guise of the newly-unified Italian state.

Fascist Swords and Sandals

With the famous 1922 ‘March on Rome,’ a military coup, resulting in the ascension of Benito Mussolini to the role of Italian Prime Minister, the notion of forming a new Roman Empire moved from a nationalist ideal to a fully-fledged aim of the state. Although the Fascist’s colonial plan was ostensibly dubbed ‘Greater Italy,’ it was relayed in purely Imperial rhetoric and images. Roman architecture, art, military ritual, and myth were exploited to justify Fascist aspirations in the Mediterranean – the recreation of the Imperial notion of the sea and its coasts as Italy’s Mare Nostrum, ‘our sea.’ As historian Maria Wyke terms it, this reappropriation of Roman symbols was used to ‘arouse popular support for the domestic and foreign policies of the regime.’

Naturally, the realm of Roman epics was perfectly situated to assist Il Duce in forging the populist nationalist sentiments necessary for the creation of this new Italian Empire. Through the medium of cinema, the Fascists sought to create a unifying cultural memory, with the propagandist tendencies of the genre reaching their pinnacle in Carmine Gallone’s 1937 expansion of Cabiria’s treatment of the Punic Wars, Scipione l’Africano.

Created in the wake of Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia in 1936, Scipione was very much a product of the fascist state – funded by the government (Mussolini’s son Vittorio is listed as executive producer) and utilising many of the same troops who had captured Italy’s new African colony in the piece’s extended battle scenes. Essentially a glowing portrait of Scipio Africanus (Annibale Ninchi) and, in many ways, a continuation of the nationalist ideas put forth by Calibria, Scipione follows the general during the Second Punic War, up to his defeat of Hannibal and the Carthaginians in the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C.

By focussing on the leaders of the two armies themselves, Scipione directly contrasts, in an even more blatant manner than Cabiria, the despotic, barbaric nature of Carthaginian society with the civic virtues of Rome. The first scene shows Scipio to be an unassuming man, convinced to lead the forces of Rome by the adoring crowds of the city, and drawing the enthusiastic support of patriotic yeomen who volunteer for his legions. Conversely, Hannibal (Camillo Pilotto) is portrayed as a megalomaniacal tyrant – a ruthless invader of southern Italy whose own men visibly cower in fear of him. Like Cabiria, Scipione sets the Romans, and, by extension, their modern-day counterparts, as the moral superiors of the Carthaginians, who represent Africans en masse. According to Scipione, these conflicts are wars of forced enlightenment.

Indeed, after Scipio’s victory at Zama, he reverts to his old role of farmer and family man, showing that he is merely a citizen who answers the call of the state; a patriotic defender rather than an expansionistic warlord. The parallels between Scipio and Mussolini are clear – both men are merely servants of the Empire, resolutely defending it from the barbarism of outsiders. This comparison was, of course, no accident. Scipione’s screenwriter, Luigi Malerba, wrote that, when creating the piece, ‘the Duce’s image had become fixed in [his] memory… like a figure of Scipio Africanus.’

Similarly, like Rome’s invasion of Carthage, Italy’s war in Abyssinia was portrayed as a conflict to restore natural order. Indeed, Mussolini greeted the fervent crowds following the victory with the words, ‘People of Italy, people of the world, peace has been restored.’ Of course, the truth is that the Italian’s Ethiopian venture was little more than a colonial war, one that showed, through the utilisation of mustard gas and summary execution, that the state was, like Ancient Rome, willing to utilise brutality to achieve its goals.

Scipione’s cinematographer, Luigi Freddi, was under no illusions that the film was a propagandist work. Shortly after its release, he wrote in a national newspaper, ‘Scipione was conceived on the eve of the African undertaking [the annexation of Ethiopia] and was begun soon after the victory… It was desired to symbolise the intimate union between the past grandeur of Rome and the bold accomplishment of our era.’

In cherry-picking their own history, disregarding virtually all of the brutality and cruelty inherent in the Empire in lieu of an idealised interpretation more suited to the needs of the state, the Italians utilised the emerging genre as a means to reshape public perceptions of modern-day events. From their very inception, filmic renditions of Ancient Rome were inexorably linked to contemporary politics.

Empires Old and New

In the aftermath of WWII, the Italians, broken by the ignominy of defeat, moved away from the grandiose comparisons between the modern state and the Roman Empire that had, in the sobering light of the post-war world, come to signify the dangers of Fascism. Instead of melodramatic epics unreflective of the ‘real’ Italy, Italian filmmakers dealt self-critically with the issues that had brought the nation so close to ruin.

While the would-be inheritors of the Roman Empire tackled the reality of life in post-war Italy in neorealist masterpieces such as De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Rossellini’s Open City (1945), a new power was preparing to resurrect the world of Rome once more. While Italy had saw its hopes of donning the purple robes of Imperialism extinguished by WWII, America had emerged alongside the USSR as a superpower – an atomic-age Empire. The US, with an excess of riches reminiscent of Rome itself, was perfectly situated to dominate the epic genre.

Although Hollywood had flirted with portrayals of Ancient Rome in the 1920s and 30s, most notably in Fred Niblo’s 1925 version of Ben-Hur and Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 Cleopatra, it wasn’t until the 1950s that dramatic interpretations of the fallen Empire truly captured the public consciousness. But, rather than reach into the vastness of Roman history for an untold tale to adapt, MGM, the first studio to enter the arena, looked instead to the Italian epics of the past.

Where the Italians idealised Rome, forgoing historical accuracy to suit their contemporary notions of Empire, the Americans, in much the same manner, demonised it. Drawing on the nation’s hard-fought emancipation and its role in WWII, post-war American depictions of the Roman Empire were frequently used to symbolise the dangers of militant Imperialism.  With its tale of a Roman general’s love for a Christian slave set against a scathing portrayal of Nero’s Rome and the citizens themselves, it is unsurprising that the first of these American epics was Mervin LeRoy’s 1951 adaptation of Quo Vadis.

Essentially a tale of Paganism versus Christianity, Quo Vadis draws on the portrayals of early Christian theologians in depicting Nero as the Antichrist eventually defeated by the defenders of the true faith, among them a converted pagan in the form of Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor). Just as the Italians crafted their own Roman epics in order to discourse with their recent past, the Americans utilised the tale of Quo Vadis – essentially a battle for spiritual and political freedom – to comment on their own history. Drawing on the nation’s revolution and its role in WWII, the Roman Empire is equated with The British Empire, the Soviet Union and, most obviously, with Nazi Germany.

Nero’s (Peter Ustinov) threat to ‘exterminate’ all Christians would have carried clear Holocaust overtones for contemporary audiences, as would the fact that the heroine of the piece, Lygia (Deborah Kerr), and her Herculean protector, Ursus (Buddy Baer), are said to hail from the land of Lygia, which lies between the Oder and Vistula rivers – modern day Poland. Utilising the piece as an allegory for the war itself, Quo Vadis equates Hitler’s Germany with the Roman Empire – a militant, corrupt state that is eventually defeated by Christian soldiers forced to wage war upon it. ‘Quo Vadis,’ says film theorist Monica Silveira Cyrino, ‘celebrates the success of American and Allied opposition to the Imperial ambitions and atrocities’ of Hitler’s regime.

Vinicius’ comments at the film’s opening further highlight this comparison: ‘Conquest,’ he says, ‘it’s the only method of uniting and civilising the world under one power.’ Where the Italians portrayed the Empire’s wars as ‘civilising’ missions to reflect their own worldview, the American epics such as Quo Vadis drew on their own recent past to present Roman victories in purely Fascist terms – as a self-proclaimed ‘master race’ imposing its rule and ideology by force of arms.

Reds in Rome

But, rather than utilising depictions of the Roman Empire as simply a means of commenting on the corruption of an enemy already defeated, American directors re-tasked Rome to address a more pressing threat – the spread of communism. By the time of Quo Vadis’ release in 1951, the US was in the grip of the ‘Red Scare’ and at the height of a fervent anti-Communist crusade led by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

With Communist Russia becoming increasingly defined by its atheism – one of the leading epithets attributed to the Soviets was ‘Godless’ – religious feeling became a fundamental signifier of democratic Americanism. Evangelists such as Billy Graham proclaimed Stalin as the Antichrist, much as the early fathers of the church had dubbed Nero, while tales of religious persecution filtered into the States from the east. As such, Quo Vadis’ tale of a Christian minority’s abuse and eventual victory over a totalitarian, vast, and Godless enemy became symbolic of America’s own battle against the faceless threat of Communism in the 1950s. So effective was Quo Vadis’ allegory that the USSR banned LeRoy’s film for decades.

Throughout the 1950s, Rome was continually appropriated to discuss the social and political aspects of the Cold War that contemporary America found itself embroiled in. Henry Koster’s 1953 epic, The Robe, follows a Tribune (Richard Burton) who, through witnessing the crucifixion of Christ and winning his titular garment, accepts Christianity and is hunted down by the villainous Emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson). Like in Quo Vadis, religion is portrayed as one of the defining characteristics that differentiate the barbaric Empire from its enemies; Christianity, as in the real-life Cold War, is ‘good,’ atheism/paganism is ‘bad.’

But, with McCarthyism impinging on the civil liberties of American citizens themselves, Roman epics also came to reflect the disillusion felt towards the US government. From Nero shifting the blame for the fire of Rome onto the innocent Christians in Quo Vadis, to Caligula’s need for Christian ‘names, no matter what the cost’ in The Robe, there are subtle echoes of the persecution of individuals by the state and the unrelenting search for the elusive ‘Reds under the bed.’ The infringement of civil liberties under McCarthyism led to the US being cast metaphorically as both the Empire and its enemies, with the good senator as the Emperor himself.

Subtlety may have been needed at the height of the Red Scare and the prodigious use of the now-infamous Hollywood Blacklists, but, by the time of 1959’s Ben-Hur and the following year’s Spartacus, the need for veiled digs at the dangers of McCarthyism was coming to an end. Messala’s (Stephen Boyd) attempts to persuade Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) to give up the names of Jewish subversives and resistance leaders simultaneously conjures notions of both the Holocaust and the inquiries of the McCarthy era, which were plagued by accusations of anti-Semitism. According to film theorist Monica Silveira Cyrino, he becomes both a ‘quasi-symbol of the “master race”’ and an analogy of ‘the American government’s attempts to restrain civil liberties during the McCarthy years.’

Similarly, taking up the position of informant is portrayed as a means of endearing an individual to the power-that-be. ‘Would I retain your friendship if I became an informer?’ asks Judah. As in the midst of the Red Scare, accusing others of treason is one of the key safeguards against suspicion. Messala, with his near-deranged obsession with rooting out the Jewish resistance, symbolises the Communist witch-hunt of 50s America.

While the Roman epics of the 50’s may have engaged with the fervent religious feeling and demagoguery that punctuated the McCarthy era, Kubrick’s 1960 tale of a slave (Kirk Douglas) who leads a rebellion against the Romans, Spartacus, openly opposed it. Birthed by two blacklisted communist sympathisers in the form of Howard Fast, whose novel the piece was adapted from, and Dalton Trumbo, who wrote Spartacus for the screen, the piece openly reflects its creators’ political sympathies. Likewise, Kubrick stated that he was more influenced by Soviet historical films than the likes of Ben-Hur and its ilk. The resulting collaboration between the three ‘Reds’ sparked widespread protests across the US.

It’s not difficult to see why. Aside from the overt Marxist connotations of a slave uprising, of a downtrodden proletariat attempting to seize their freedom by force, the famous ‘I am Spartacus’ scene, where the protagonist’s followers choose to share his fate rather than identify him, is a fairly clear allegory for the solidarity of the blacklisted Communists during the McCarthy era. Spartacus’ message is clear: it is better to be a shield than an informer.

Barbarians at the Gates

After their 1950s glory days, when Roman epics fought the Cold War, the genre fell victim to spiralling costs, symbolised by Cleopatra’s astronomical $300 million inflation-adjusted budget, and growing public apathy towards depictions of the Empire. Anthony Mann’s aptly- titled The Fall of the Roman Empire in 1964 was effectively the death knell of the genre; the release of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in 2000 marked the only real cinematic attempt to revisit Rome in the past forty years. But, with the US and her allies embroiled in two wildly unpopular and bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the allegorical heft of the Roman Empire is once again being taken up by filmmakers.

The tale of the Ninth Legion – an elite cadre of Roman troops who set off north of Hadrian ’s Wall to put down the Picts and never returned – seems to have a special relevance in these troubled times, with both Neil Marshall’s Centurion and Kevin MacDonald’s The Eagle drawing on the legend. The parallels between the modern day Coalition and Ancient Rome couldn’t be more striking – the world’s most powerful state ventures to the wild edge of the world to punish an enemy whom it fails to understand and badly underestimates. Like in the Middle East, the results are brutal, bloody, and confusing. Ironically enough, records suggest the legion actually survived their ordeal north of the wall, only to be wiped out attempting to quell a rebellion in the Middle East.

Couple this with the US’s human rights violations, both alleged and confirmed, and the fact that the Afghan war is now the longest-running conflict in US history, and Centurion’s supposition that ‘This is a new kind of war; a war without honour, without end,’ carries significant allegorical weight. Inviting the viewer to side with neither the bloodthirsty Picts nor the unlikeable Romans, both The Eagle and Centurion symbolise a shift away from the identification of one side against another, away from the political and religious binaries that defined the metaphors and storylines of earlier Roman epics.

Centurion’s hero (Michael Fassbender) finds only incompetence and treachery among his Roman comrades and is eventually forced to desert the army and settle with fellow outsider, a Pictish woman suspected of witchcraft. Likewise, The Eagle’s protagonist (Channing Tatum) travels into the hostile north with his slave/ally Esca (Jamie Bell), searching for the eponymous standard lost by his father’s legion. The important bonds, according to the latest generation of epics, are personal ones; between family, friends and lovers rather than states and religions.

Both directors are open in their allegorical aims, with MacDonald describing his film as an ‘Iraq or Afghanistan war film taking place in the second century’ and Marshall noting that, like the Middle Eastern conflicts, Centurion is simply about ‘Soldiers following their orders…. up against a force who are totally justified in wanting to get them out of their country.’

This new resurrection of Rome is one hostile to both the Empire and its enemies; the films are studies of a superpower stretched to near-breaking point at the edge of its dominion, a commentary on the dangers of what the Romans, and the early Italian filmmakers, referred to as ‘civilising missions.’ But, unlike their antecedents, these missions are not glorified, but seen as fruitless wars; nothing more than deep wells to be filled with blood.

The Eternal Empire?

So, are portrayals of Rome going to enjoy a prolonged stay in the multiplex this time? Probably not. But, while depictions of the Empire may drop in and out of the cinematic consciousness, they have, since the dawn of the medium, never been far from our screens. As stated above, what makes them unique is the allegorical potential they afford filmmakers, and, for that reason, it is likely they will continue to endure in the filmic world, like an old book of mythic tales, ready to be called upon when the situation demands it. As Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Oxford, puts it, ‘What’s odd and reassuring is that every generation says to itself, “God, we’ve rediscovered Ancient Rome,” but actually it’s never stopped. Rome has always been in the moviemaker’s eye.”


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  1. […] For a wider look at the Roman genre, have a gander at The Ooh Tray’s feature on Rome on Film. […]