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Tom Holland's Ancient World

Tom Holland’s Ancient Films

Kevin MacDonald’s The Eagle, which takes place in Roman Britain, brings to the screen a rarely seen side of the ancient world. Yet the ancient world, from Sparta to Rome, from Alexandria to Athens, has been a favorite Hollywood subject. Tom Holland knows quite a bit about the Ancient world. He’s the author of the award-winning history Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, as well as Persian Fire and Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom. In addition to his own work, he’s adapted Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides and Virgil for the BBC. He is currently working on a translation of Herodotus for Penguin Classics. In 2007, he was the winner of the 2007 Classical Association prize, awarded to “the individual who has done most to promote the study of the language, literature and civilization of Ancient Greece and Rome.”  What better person to give us his overview of ten films dealing with ancients.

Ben Hur

In the golden age of Hollywood, films about the ancient world would invariably resemble the triumphs granted to victorious Roman generals: bombastic, full of spectacle, and very, very long. Ben Hur, which clocks in at a muscle-bound four hours, is dull in the way that I find so many sword-and-sandal epics dull––and yet I include it in this list precisely because it exemplifies to such perfection a particularly enduring vision of antiquity. It is one that features chariot races, and galley slaves, and centurions in bright red cloaks; a mood of simmering homoeroticism; and just a dash of Sunday School. It doesn’t really get more classic.


Released one year after Ben Hur, in 1960, Stanley Kubrick’s take on slavery in ancient Rome may be seasoned by the politics of class warfare rather than by pieties drawn from the New Testament, but is no less a riot of clichés for that. Gladiators have traditionally served as even more exotic shorthand for antiquity than have chariot races, and the story of Spartacus, the most famous gladiator of them all, provided plenty of scope for the flaunting of whips, rippling muscles, leather skirts, and mass crucifixions. Spartacus is also notable for having definitively established that the Romans, sadistic and sexually depraved as they invariably were, were almost bound to have spoken with English accents. 

The Robe

Another biblically flavoured epic, The Robe is notable for the best portrayal of a Roman emperor ever given––one that beats Peter Ustinov’s Nero in Quo Vadis? into a very distant second place. Jay Robinson features as Caligula, and effortlessly upstages the rest of the cast, which includes Richard Burton and Jean Simmons, whenever he is on screen. A no less enjoyable sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators, saw him reach even more dizzying heights of charismatic lunacy. Convinced that the robe of Christ, which in the first film had persuaded Richard Burton to become a Christian, will grant him immortality, Jay Robinson turns Rome upside down in his search for it. He is, as Jean Simmons puts it in a speech that dooms her to martyrdom, “vicious, treacherous, drunk with power, an evil, insane monster.” Fabulous.

Carry on Cleo

It is worth sitting through hours and hours of turgid post-war sword-and-sandal epics just to have one’s pleasure in seeing Sid James as Mark Antony so much enhanced. By miles the best of the Carry On films, it runs for 92 minutes where Cleopatra is over four hours long: an imbalance that says everything about the respective entertainment value of the two films. It is famous, of course, for what is probably, after Shakespeare’s ‘Et tu Brute?’, the best known line of dialogue ever attributed to Julius Caesar: “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!”


Frederico Fellini’s adaptation of a picaresque novel written by Petronius, Nero’s ‘arbiter of elegance’, is the most convincing portrait of ancient Rome ever shown on screen––precisely because no effort is made to approximate to realism. Scenes materialise and fade like visions in a dream, as a host of sexual complexes are given a thorough work out. Nymphomaniacs and hermaphrodites, castration and impotence, brothels and public sex: all are given a delirious prominence. Some of these themes are the exclusive reflection of Fellini’s own obsessions––but many do indeed derive from Petronius. Particularly notable is the feast hosted by the parvenu freedman Trimalchio: one of the most memorable scenes in ancient literature, and an episode to which Fellini proves himself more than equal.


Thirty-six years after the box-office failure of The Fall of the Roman Empire, Ridley Scott resurrected not only elements of its plot, but the entire sword-and-sandal genre with it. Set in the reign of Commodus, the vicious son of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, it features almost everything that Hollywood has always associated with Rome: slaves, centurions, mad emperors, the works. Simultaneously, however, it also had a quality not normally associated with historical epics: prescience. In the manner of the best science fiction, it portrays a world that is as weirdly familiar it is strange––and as much about the future as the past. Citizens fed on dazzling entertainments; armies striking at an elusive foreign foe; the high-tech delivery of weapons of fire: a portrait of ancient Rome that, coming as it did in the year 2000, was soon to be overtaken by events.

The Return of the King

Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the third part of The Lord of the Rings might seem a bit of a cheat––yet in truth, just as Fellini brought Nero’s Rome to life by portraying it as fantasy, so Peter Jackson performs a similar feat of resurrectionism upon some of the most stirring events of late antiquity. Tolkien was steeped in the literature and history of the Dark Ages, and consciously drew upon it for his portrait of Middle Earth. That is why, in the siege of Minas Tirith, we are given the best staging of the Arab sieges of Constantinople that we are ever likely to see on the big screen––just as the battle of Pellenor Fields serves to demonstrate how the defeat of Attila by a combined force of Goths and Romans would have been rendered even more thrilling by the participation of giant elephants.


Hollywood, despite its reputation for riding roughshod over details of history, has always rather fetishised authenticity when it comes to recreating the look of the ancient world. Zak Snyder, director of this notoriously triumphalist staging of the battle of Thermopylae, goes to the opposite extreme. With their cloaks, their helmets and their tight black pants, the Spartans have more than a hint of Batman about them – and show us war, in consequence, as something almost camply glamorous. Militarism is cast as a thing both glorious and beautiful––which is precisely what makes 300 the most convincing portrait of an ancient people’s cast of mind ever filmed. Most directors have sought to soften the serrated edges of antiquity, by introducing Christians, or visionary slaves, or liberals avant la letter––but Snyder, by refusing to indulge his audience’s presumptions, attains a brutal and unsettling degree of authenticity.


Zhang Yimou’s film about the legendary King of Qin who went on to become the first Emperor of a unified China outraged critics quite as much as did 300––and for very similar reasons. By eulogising the King of Qin as the only man capable of bringing peace to a bleeding world, the film provided audiences with a stirring glorification of monarchical authoritarianism and global conquest: ideals of which Xerxes, the Spartans’ opponent at Thermopylae, would thoroughly have approved. Viewers who want a bit of balance after watching 300 should definitely check Hero out.


Spartans always excepted, the Greeks seem to lack the ready box-office appeal of the Romans. All credit, then, to Alejandro Amenábar for telling the story of a woman in the great city of Alexandria who was someone other than Cleopatra. Hypatia was a philosopher and mathematician in the dying days of paganism whose murder by a band of monks makes her the ideal pin-up for any Richard Dawkins fan––which, sure enough, is precisely how she is portrayed in Agora. Yet the faint whiff of wish-fulfilment around the film hardly serves to impair its many accuracies, which are vivid and impressive. The look and feel of a late antique city, with Christianity laying claim to its streets, are gloriously evoked––and makes me only wish that there were other films with a similar setting.


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