Some Slightly Rambling Introductory Notes for the Rome-Movies Course


Our Founding Fathers all had some level of classical education, and, during the Constitutional Convention, they were thoroughly propagandized about the description by Polybius of the distributed political power structure of the Roman Republic.  But despite our Roman republican antecedents, our real fascination in popular culture is with the excesses of the  Empire period of ancient Rome.


Peaks of Roman Empire interest seem to be co-temporal with empire building by audience home country: 

e.g., Shakespeare's tremendously successful Roman plays during the Elizabethan era and 20th/21st century fascination with the Empire during the US "(sole) Imperial superpower" age.  (Cf., the "sword and sandal" and "toga" flicks of the post WW2 period).  There are comparable German, Russian, and Italian examples.  The two great  collections of Toga movies are the Italian  (ca. 1910 through  late 1940s)  and the  American (mostly post WW2).  The Italian movies generally glorified  imperialism, and many of them were made to justify Mussolini's goals.  American Toga movies, as well as the spate of "sword and sandal" movies in the late 1940s and early 1950s, were mostly anti-war, anti-imperialist, and "underdog triumphant". 


Strictly speaking (and why not?), in Hollywood and other, mostly European, movie capitals, ancient religious stuff (often biblical or ersatz biblical) was made into "Sword and Sandal movies".  Movies with a non-religious Roman setting were "Toga movies".  It has been argued that all American Toga movies were religious, i.e., either Judeo-Christian or Marxist.


Almost always, lessons are being taught -- authors and producers being the teachers.  There is often a great difference between the intended lesson and what is "received" by the audience, and "reception", of course, is time sensitive (see below).




Film -- what people with pretensions of "culture" go to see at small "art" theaters in northwest Washington.


Movie -- what the rest of us go to see at multiplex theaters in the burbs.


Flick -- what they usually show in places where you can also get a beer -- like your TV room.


Cinema -- what they do in France and at the "Cinema and Draft House" at the corner of Glebe and Fillmore in Arlington (the latter of which is a better place.)


Two other words that you often hear in "film as literature" courses are "reception" and "gaze".  There is great controversy about what these words mean and how they should be used.  My simplistic definitions are as follows: 


Reception refers to how material is taken in by a member or members of the audience -- it is passive, although there is (usually) an active element, which is how the audience member processes the material, i.e., how the material is stirred into what the person already believes or thinks he/she knows.  (The French "deconstruction" fad took this element to the extreme, saying that what the author might have intended the audience to take away had lost its relevance as soon as the author's words (or producer's product) were offered:  the only thing that mattered was how the audience processed the information.  This fad, remarkably, held sway throughout the West for a while, but we are now said to be in the "post-deconstructionism" phase.  This is all, of course, just specialist jargon.)


Gaze (sometimes "look") is what the author or producer is trying to attract, to the story as a whole and to particular aspects of the story.  Gaze is much more active than reception:  the audience has to look rather than just see.


Both reception and gaze are, of course, modified by time.  The time between when the story is written down and when it becomes available to a particular audience changes both reception and gaze.  With our material, this happens several times: 


First, when the event happens (or when the story is made up) and the original recording of the event takes place.  This is not always as easy to define as it might seem.  Some examples with our material are: the comedic situations in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which appear to be Roman but were actually derived from earlier Greek stock situations; and the "horrors and sex" in the Caligula story, which appear to be derived from historical accounts of Caligula's reign, but are really derived from pre-existing (even pre-Roman) stock descriptions of ancient tyranny.

In fact, nothing in what comes down to us about Caligula from the ancient "historians" has any necessary relationship to what he actually did, but what we can be sure about is that he was immensely unpopular with the successors in whose employ were the "historians".  Modern "revisionists", however, maintain that Caligula was very popular with the people who counted, the Roman demos or mob.  Nonetheless, Caligula's "excesses" made for a titillating story, which has been repeated down through the ages.)

Later intermediate retellings change the "lesson".  In our material, three of the films (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Titus) are based on explicit retellings by Shakespeare, who had lessons of his own to add.  All of the stories in all of the films were reworked by European Renaissance "humanists" (i.e., people -- almost invariably men -- who rediscovered the "classic" Roman stories and rewrote them into Ciceronian Latin or their own vernaculars,  their avowed purpose being to find "human" exemplars to replace the biblical exemplars of the earlier "scholastics".)  It's worth noting here that Shakespeare got his Roman histories (Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, but not Titus Andronicus) from Sir Thomas North's 1579 English translation of Plutarch's Parallel Lives, and that North would have been working  Latin text(s) as rendered by Italian or French humanists of his own time or slightly earlier, not with original texts.


Recent productions (i.e., 20th/21st century) have their own added lessons to teach. 


The 1937 Scipio film was a glorification of Italian fascist imperialism, which had been expanding in Libya ("Tripolitania" and "Cyrenaica") since Mussolini's accession and which, a few months after Scipio's premier would lead to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.  The intended Italian audience reveled in the idea of imperial expansion.  Seventy years later we look on it with revulsion:  the "reception" has changed, clearly because our "political correctness" isn't the same as that of the 1930s Italian audience.


The post WW2 Hollywood epics (both Religious and Toga) were based on 18th and 19th century Protestant "novelizations" and novels.  Quo Vadis, The Robe, and The Ten Commandments were clearly "religious message" films, and, not incidentally, had post-war anti-war messages.  They are outside the scope of this course even though the first two were definitely "Roman".  Ben Hur, which we will not see, was also blatantly religious, but that's not why we won't be seeing it.  The choice was between Spartacus and Ben Hur, and the former has more lessons to teach both about Rome and about the societies that made the movies, and, at any rate, the locations of Ben Hur are Israel and Antioch, not Rome.  (We will see, however, the eight-minute chariot race scene from Ben Hur (twice):  it's too iconic and exciting to miss.)  The Spartacus film also has Christian resonance, first because of the initial explicit tie-in to Christianity provided by the off-screen narrator and then because of how the Christian West reacts to crucifixion, not to mention the subtext of supposed Christian virtues that run through the whole film.  The narrator's opening "Christian" remarks, by the way, are not nearly as jarring to the educated ear as are the remarks, supposedly the words of Augustus in a reference to his Res Gestae brag sheet, at the end of the 2003 Italian Augustus TV film that refer to the birth of "Jesus of Nazareth" in the 23rd year of his reign.   Also, by the way,  there is nothing in the real history of Spartacus that would justify the scene of his crucifixion (cruci-fiction?).  Although many of his men were crucified, Spartacus was not.  It was assumed that  he had been killed in battle, but the body of Spartacus was never found -- like Hitler, he still may be hiding out in Argentina.


The Caligula movie was the result of several different visions (some of them clearly perverted) working at cross-purposes.  The version we will see is the least perverted (R - rated with Gore Vidal's name back on the label).  We'll talk about but not see the other versions.


Fellini's Satyricon, based on the surviving fragmentary Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, Nero's supposed "master of the revels", was produced to draw parallels between Dolce Vita 1960s Italy and Nero's Rome.  It's pretty tame by today's standards.  What could Fellini have wrought today?  (Something to think about: were the Satyricons of Petronius and Fellini about satire or Satyrs?)


Gladiator is yet another big toga blockbuster.  The story is pure fiction except for the names of some of the main characters.  It gets an "F" for historical accuracy, but the background material -- costumes, ambiance, architecture, and the feel of the colosseum are very accurate.  When Gladiator  first lit the silver screen, several movie critics said that it was too violent and bloody, but we "Romanists" know (don't we?) that the movie wasn't nearly bloody and violent enough to accurately depict the Colosseum and Roman society. 


Our final film will be Titus, Julie Taymore's fairly accurate rendering of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. This was Shakespeare's most violent play, and Ms. Taymore doesn't cringe from reflecting Shakespeare.  Shakespeare scholars say that he was inspired by the surviving "revenge dramas" of Seneca, nine "plays" intended to be read rather than performed that were written in blank verse by the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca in the 1st century AD.  Rediscovered by Italian humanists in the mid-16th century, Seneca's plays became the models for the revival of tragedy on the Renaissance stage. The two great, but very different, dramatic traditions of the age -- French Neoclassical tragedy and Elizabethan tragedy -- both drew inspiration from Seneca.  There are certainly "modernisms" throughout the film, but they are clearly both intentional and, more importantly, to the point.  Taymore is better known for her design, direction, staging of "The Lion King" (which, in fact, has some elements that could easily have been drawn from Shakespeare's Hamlet.)  A more traditional version of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus played at the Washington Shakespeare Theatre in 2007, and the Washington Folger Theatre hosted a live video-link performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company in September of 2017.  The Synetic Theater has a "Wordless Shakespeare" version of Titus Andronicus in its 2018 season.