From the advent of movie making in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Roman History has been a popular setting for cinema and later television. Movie audiences have been captivated by the epic scale of movie sets depicting the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus, by the opulent splendour and licentiousness of the imperial court, and by the savagery of Roman politics. However, such movies have nurtured distorted impressions of Roman history. Yes, Roman history was epic. Yes, Roman history had drama. Yes, Roman politics could be savage. However, the same could be said for almost any society over a two thousand year period– cinema often distorts events and persons in favour of making a ripper of a story.
Below are lists of movies and TV programs based on Roman history. The lists are aligned with the key Roman historical periods to assist with making sense of the history that the movies purport to recount.
Foundation of Rome and Kings of Rome (8th to 5th Centuries BC)
|Amazons of Rome||Type||Movie|
|Overview||Released originally in Italian as ‘Le Virgini di Roma’, Amazons of Rome is based (very) loosely upon the Roman-Etruscan war that followed immediately after the expulsion of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome.
With Rome embattled and fighting for its life, a group of aristocratic Roman woman arm themselves to protect their city. Clelia (Sylvia Syms), the commander of the Amazons, falls in love with Drusco (Louis Jourdan), commander of barbarian cavalry employed by the Etruscans. Their love – and their ultimate loyalties – contribute to the climax of the story.
|Sources||Photos and Movie Posters (selected)
|Hero of Rome||Type||Movie|
|Overview||Released originally in Italian as ‘Il Colosso di Roma’, Hero of Rome is based (very) loosely upon the Roman-Etruscan war that followed immediately after the expulsion of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome.
Roman hero Scaevola (Gordon Scott) slips into the Etruscan camp intent on murdering the Etruscan king (Roldano Lupi). However, Scaevola is captured before he can complete his mission. Shamed by his failure, Scaevola thrusts his hand into a fire to prove that he would willing withstand any torture rather than divulge information of use to the Etruscans. Released by the Etruscans, the now crippled Scaevola returns to Rome to find that the Senate is unable to effectively manage the war. Nevertheless, it becomes apparent that only Scaevola can lead the Romans in battle – so he trains himself to use a sword with his left hand, and leads the Romans to victory.
Roman Republic (5th to 1st Centuries BC)
|Overview||Based on a novel of the same name by Howard Fast, the film is a dramatisation of the legend of the slave rebel Spartacus. More broadly, the film is based loosely on the historical events of the ‘Third Servile War’ of 73-71BC against the Roman Republic.The film explores themes regarding the basic humanity of people, such as freedom, love and life. Once these human elements are stripped away by slavery and oppression, people have nothing further to risk by rebelling. In the film, the uprising is brutally crushed but the victory is a hollow victory for the Roman Republic – the actions of the slaves reflect the universal yearnings of all people, irrespective of their era. The name of Spartacus is popularly known in the modern world, however, how many people other than historians remember Crassius the crusher of the slaves?|
|Sources||Discussion (Wikipedia)Trailer (film clip)|
|Date||2005, 2007 (2 seasons)|
|Overview||Employing a sprawling range of characters, Rome re-tells the epic struggles that ended the Roman Republic.Beginning with Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, the series follows Caesar’s Civil War with Pompey, the assassination of Caesar, the subsequent alliance of Octavian and Mark Antony and the defeat of the Conspirators, and the subsequent Civil War between Octavian and Mark Antony. The series climaxes with Octavian’s domination of the Roman World.|
Early Empire (1st Century BC to 3rd Century AD)
|I, Claudius||Type||TV Series|
|Overview||Based upon the novel by Robert Graves, ‘I, Claudius’ re-tells the personal and political dramas of the Julio-Claudian imperial dynasty – from Augustus to the death of Claudius.|
|Sources||Discussion (Wikipedia)Discussion (IMDB)Historical Evaluation of the Series (discussion)|
|Overview||Based upon the novel by Lew Wallace, Ben Hur is the epic telling of the life of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) from his arrest for the (accidental) attempted murder of the Roman governor, his service as a galley slave, and eventual freedom when he saves the life of the Roman Consul in a sea-battle.Ben Hur returns to Judea seeking revenge for his treatment, and finds his former life and family destroyed. Consumed by a desire for revenge, he willing participates in a chariot-race (perhaps one of the most dramatic scenes in cinematic history) – a race that is a pseudo-gladiatorial combat with his former friend and now enemy, Messala.The movie climaxes with the crucifixion of Christ – the lives of Christ and Ben Hur run in parallel in the story – which transforms Ben Hur, enabling him to relinquish his hatred.|
|Sources||Discussion (Wikipedia)Discussion (AFI)Trailer (film clip)|
|Warrior Queen||Type||TV Series|
|Date||1978 (1 season)|
|Overview||Set in Britain about 20 years after the Roman conquest, this short TV series (six 25 minute episodes) chronicles the events of the revolt of Queen Boudica.Following the death of the King of the Iceni, the Roman procurator ransacks the tribal capital, flogs the widow, and has her daughters raped. Incensed by her treatment, Boudica leads a revolt whose ferocity comes close to destroying Rome’s hold over Britain.|
|Eagle of the Ninth||Type||TV Series|
|Date||1977 (1 season)|
|Overview||Based on the novel of the same name by Rosemary Sutcliff, the series is set in Britain in the early 2nd Century.It begins with the arrival in Britain of a young Roman army officer, Marcus Flavius Aquila, determined to win glory – and to discover the truth behind the destruction of his father’s legion, the Ninth Hispana.Invalided out of the army after his first and only battle, Marcus must find new purpose for his life. Once he is sufficiently recovered from his wounds, and in the company of his freed slave Esca, Marcus travels north beyond Hadrian’s Wall on the trail of the lost legion. Travelling under a false identity as a wandering eye-healer and his body-guard, Marcus and Esca finally learn the truth of the destruction of the Ninth Hispana. Fleeing south with the legion’s eagle, Marcus and Esca are hunted by incensed barbarians before finally reaching the safety of Hadrian’s Wall.|
|Overview||Based loosely on the historically possible destruction of the Ninth Hispana legion in Scotland, Centurion follows the adventures of a small band of Roman soldiers after the destruction of the legion as they endeavour to escape south to the Roman province. One by one the Romans are killed, leaving just one – who life must change if he is to survive.|
|Overview||Eagle is based (loosely) on the novel Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff.The film is notable for his high production values and with a very different climatic struggle before Marcus and Esca reached Hadrian’s Wall.|
|Sources||Discussion (Wikipedia)Trailer (film clip)|
Middle Empire (3rd to 4th Centuries AD)
|Fall of the Roman Empire||Type||Movie|
|Overview||The film focusses on the intense competition for power and dominance in the court of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. In the power struggle, the emperor is murdered to be replaced by a succession of other imperial claimants while the frontiers are threatened by barbarians. Marcus Aurelius is depicted as a man seeking fundamental social change within the empire, which is successors are unwilling or unable to deliver.|
|Overview||The film centres on (fictional) General Maximus Decimus Meridius who inflicts a defeat on the German tribes for his emperor, Marcus Aurelius. The emperor is murdered shortly afterwards by his son Commodus. Maximus refuses to swear allegiance to the new emperor, triggering a series of terrible events. Maximus re-emerges as a gladiator and challenges the tyranny of Commodus.In essence, Gladiator is a re-working of Spartacus and The Fall of the Roman Empire.|
Late Empire (4th to 5th Centuries AD)