Ancient Rome Goes to the Movies History 303 alri spring Semester 2012

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Ancient Rome

Goes to the Movies

History 303


Spring Semester 2012

Instructor – Tom Wukitsch

Table of Contents

Page 2

Front matter

Page 40

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Page 67

Scipio Africanus – The Defeat of Hannibal

Page 80


Page 112

Julius Caesar (Shakespeare)

Page 123

Antony and Cleopatra (Shakespeare)

Page 139


Page 161


Page 174


Page 200


Page 216

Titus (Andronicus) (Shakespeare)

Page 234

Appendix A: a Wikipedia list of films set in ancient Rome

Page 237

Appendix B: abbreviated Roman Timeline

[Syllabus word origin: Neo-Latin: syllabus or syllabos, probably a misreading (in manuscripts of Cicero) of Greek síttybos, accusative plural of síttyba = a label for a papyrus roll (Earliest known use: 1650–60)]

Ancient Rome in the Movies (History 303)

Ten two to three hour sessions (depending on length of films)
Tuesdays, March 6 through May 8, each class starting at 12 noon. 
Classes will be held in room 244 at George Mason University, 3401 N. Fairfax Drive, Arlington, VA

Some filmmakers 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).  Television 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 and ongoing Italian-made "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.)  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 stage.  Other films will follow.  Popcorn not provided.

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:

Big Screen Rome, by Monica Silveira Cyrino, or

Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture, by

Sandra B. Joshel et al., or,

Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema, and History, by Maria Wyke

For a few rambling general introductory notes for this course, go to:

Course Units (one film per unit):



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)
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 also the force behind bringing other previously blacklisted actors and staff into the production.

2.  Scipio Africanus -- The Defeat of Hannibal (1937)

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. Its 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)

198 Minutes

A very fictitious 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)

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)
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 1975.  Most 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)
178 Minutes

"....equal parts history lesson and soap opera, and thoroughly engaging  at all levels".   Peter O'toole is Augustus on his deathbed and remembering/retelling his life.  The film is surprisingly accurate. 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.)
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)
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 that 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)
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)
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.
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