[Word origin: 1650–60; A neo-Latin neologism, syllabus, syllabos is probably a misreading (in manuscripts of Cicero) of Greek síttybās, accusative plural of síttyba = a label for a papyrus roll]

Ancient Rome in the Movies

Ten three hour sessions -- on line: ZOOM Click image or this line to enlarge the image

Some film makers got ancient Rome right.  Some got it wrong.  Some didn't get it at all.  Many films about Rome tell us more about the biases of the times in which they were made than about the times they claim to depict.  Some are "message" films, and some just carry forward the message of the books on which they were based.  There is nothing in the historical account of Spartacus, for example, that would lead us to accept the "Christian" message of the Spartacus film epic or of the Howard Fast novel on which it is based (nor, for that matter, is there any proletarian internationalism that could explain the former Soviet fascination with "Spartakiad". 

Recent big budget films, made for theaters, tend to get the background right, but they badly garble their historical story lines.  Lower budget theater films don't even try for background accuracy much less for historical fact -- "Sword of the Arena", a girl gladiator flick, comes to mind (although there were some documented female gladiators). 

Televison productions vary greatly in authenticity:  the History Channel, just one example, will buy and broadcast almost any show that claims to be "historical",  so some History Channel content is completely bogus.  Also, television time is usually sold in small chunks, so instead of getting an "in depth" 145 minute theater version of Rome, we may only get the 60 minute television version -- minus, of course, about 13 minutes for "messages from our sponsors."  The recent Italian-made HBO "Rome" series falls into its own category: it's an in depth fictional soft porn soap opera and has almost no accurate historical content.  (That doesn't mean it's not fun to watch, but we won't, so watch it on your own time.)  "I Claudius" is fairly accurate (except that his wife probably did not poison him) but the series is just too long for this course
so, again, watch it on your own time.

There are, of course some good films on ancient Rome, and some of them have unusual formats.  "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum", our first film, based on plays by ancient Rome's best comedic playwright, fully captures the irreverence for status and authority of the ancient Roman comedic stage.  Other films will follow.  Popcorn not provided.

A few rambling random introductory notes for the course are available at

Textbooks:  No textbook will be needed for this course.  The usual  handouts will be provided for each unit.  But if you really think you must have a book, try one of these:

Course Units (one film per unit):
The following contain links to pages that are available on the Internet.
Please note that links on the Internet are notoriously volatile.  I can not  predict or prevent "broken links" due to changes in other folks'  Internet sites.  If you don't find what the link calls for, you can always search using Google or some othe search engine.
Ancient Rome in the Movies --
            The Films:

Note that some of the links below are from Wikipedia, "the free
encyclopedia that
anyone can edit".  Like much other information on the
Internet, what appears in Wikipedia should be taken cum grano salis.
1.  A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) for larger image
97 Minutes
A movie based on a broadway musical, which was based on three plays that Plautus (ca. 200 bc) may have copied from the Greek stage.  The broad comedy of Zero Mostel made the movie and the Broadway musical a success, and he was alsothe force behind bringing other previously blacklisted actors and staff into the production.
2.  Scipio Africanus -- The Defeat of Hannibal (1937) for larger image
93 Minutes
Made by Mussolini's son in 1937, the year of the Italian Trans-Libyan  Highway and Italy's invasion of Ethiopia, this film won the Venice Film Festival prize for that year.  It's clearly a propaganda piece glorifying Italian imperialism, but it is, nonetheless, surprisingly accurate. It's climax is the Battle of Zama (in modern Tunisia) in 202 BC, which ended the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage.
3.  Spartacus (1960) for larger image
198 Minutes
A very ficticious story of Rome's Third Servile War (73 - 70 BC), this is the movie that really broke the Hollywood blacklist.  Kirk Douglas, producer as well as star of the epic, brought in the blacklisted screen-writer Dalton Trumbo and insisted that he be credited with the authorship of the screenplay.   Trumbo drew his story from Howard Fast's 1951 novel and, like fast, portrayed Spartacus as a popular revolutionary.  Many scholars disagree saying that Spartacus was just a wily escapee with no grand revolutionary agenda.  It's impossible to say who was right:  the  historical evidence is extremely sketchy.
4.  Julius Caesar (1953) for larger image
121 Minutes
Julius Caesar  is the name of the production, but he dies early on. Shakespeare's story is really about Marc Antony's destruction of the liberatori  who had assassinated Caesar.  This film is recognized as one of Brando's greatest performances, and it is acclaimed by Shakespeare  specialists as well as by the Hollywood crowd.  Time period covered is 44 and 43 BC.
    part of
5.  Antony and Cleopatra (1974) for larger image
161 Minutes
Not Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  It is an ITV television production of Trevor Nunn's stage version performed by London's Royal Shakespeare Company, which was shown in the United States to great acclaim in 1975Most critics agree that it's the best mass media A and C ever produced. The time period is from 41 BC through 29 BC, but the action is much compressed by Shakespeare.
6.  Augustus (2003) for larger image
178 Minutes
"....equal parts history lesson and soap opera, and thoroughly engaging  at all levels".   Peter O'toole is Augustus on his death bed and remembering/retelling his life.  The film is surprisingly accurate, and also,  surprisingly, the multiple flashback (and even flashbacks within flashbacks) form holds the film together.  The only really jarring note is the gratuitous inclusion of Jesus in the last words of the film, supposedly spoken by the (ghost of?) Augustus in what appears to be a parody of his Res Gestae Divi Augusti (= Deeds of the Divine Augustus).  The movie covers the life of Augustus from 45 BC until his death in 14 AD.
7.  Caligula (1979, reworked several times, ours is essentially the R rated 1981 version.) for larger image
101 Minutes
This is an attempt to return to the Gore Vidal Caligula screenplay.  Penthouse Magazine operatives had inserted almost an hour of gratuitous explicit sex and gore, which was removed for this "R" rated (cleaned up) version of the notorious Penthouse production.  Caligula was undoubtedly evil and perhaps insane, but most of what we "know" about him was written by"historians" in the pay of his enemies after his assassination, and most of that is suspiciously similar to what had been written about previous tyrants in the ancient world.  The action takes place between 31 AD, when Caligula was summoned to the Villa of Tiberius in Capri, and Caligula's death in 41 AD.
8.  Satyricon (1969) for larger image
129 Minutes
Satyricon (Fellini Satyricon) is a 1969 film by Federico Fellini that is loosely based on the Petronius novel Satyricon, a series of bawdy and satirical episodes written during the reign of the emperor Nero and set in imperial Rome.  Many literature "experts" call the Petronius work the world's first novel.  The original text survives only in large fragments, and instead of trying to connect the fragments which survived, Fellini presented the material in a series of somewhat disjointed and dislocated scenes.  Petronius, usually identified with Petronius Arbiter, is thought to have been Nero's "master of the revels".  The date of the "events" in the Satyricon is unclear, but the work most likely dates from Nero's reign 54 - 68 AD
9.  Gladiator (2000) for larger image
155 Minutes
A fiction set in the reign of Commodus, the film, nonetheless, is very good on Roman architecture, costume, life style, and general ambiance -- good enough for the film to become a staple of university ancient history and archeology courses.  The history of Commodus, like that of Caligula 120 years before him, was written by historians in the pay of his erstwhile enemies.  Commodus was named Caesar by his father, Marcus Aurelius, at age 5 in 166 AD and was  made co-Augustus , in 178 AD. He reigned  alone from his father's death in 180 AD until 192 when he was assassinated -- he was not killed in the arena as shown in the movie.
10.  Titus (1999) for larger image
162 Minutes
Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, is certainly his most violent.  It was written, before Shakespeare found his own more mellow style, for an Elizabethan audience already inured to violent "revenge plays" modeled after the nine Senecan tragedies.  Our movie is Julie Taymor's production, in which she fearlessly shows all of Shakespeare's violence.  It is set in the period of "military anarchy" beginning with Maximus Thrax and ending with the formation of the Tetrarchy by Diocletian (235 - 285 AD) during the reign of a fictional Emperor Saturninus.  Shakespeare's and Taymor's bloody story accurately reflects the violence of that time.  Something to consider:  Who commits the first violent act that provokes revenge? Taymor had staged Titus in New york in 1995 before her Lion King success and returned to it for her first movie.