A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome

Course No. 8635
Professor Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
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Course No. 8635
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Draw fascinating (and surprising) connections between films set in ancient Rome and science fiction films.
  • numbers Explore two big-budget film takes on the mysterious legend of ancient Rome’s “lost legion.”
  • numbers Dispel the myth of lively recreational drug use in ancient Rome and Egypt presented by HBO’s Rome series.

Course Overview

When most of us think of the ancient Roman world, we don’t think about the scholarship of hard-working historians or the discoveries of patient archaeologists. We think, first and foremost, of what we’ve seen at the movies.

From the sword-and-sandal epics of the 1950s to the resurgence of grittier stories in the 21st century, cinema has exerted an undeniable power over our cultural understanding of ancient Rome. The iconography is always fresh in our minds: gladiatorial battles and chariot races, defiant slaves and nefarious emperors, magnificent public structures and white toga costumes. But just because these and other sights are popular in movies doesn’t mean they should always be taken as historical fact.

What would an award-winning historian think of films like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Gladiator, or even a satire like Monty Python’s Life of Brian? How have these and other movies created our popular perceptions of ancient Roman history—and in what ways have they led us astray? And why, despite the occasional box-office flop, do movies set in ancient Rome still have the power to captivate us, and to turn each of us into theater-going history buffs?

In A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome, Professor Gregory S. Aldrete uses his prolific scholarship to give you a front-row look at the great movies that have shaped ancient Rome’s role in popular culture and memory. Packed with insights into both history and filmmaking, these 12 lectures immerse you in the glory and grandeur (and, sometimes, the folly) of classic and contemporary films featuring over 50 years of cinematic talent, including directors like Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, and Ridley Scott, and actors such as Charlton Heston, Rex Harrison, Elizabeth Taylor, Patrick Stewart, and Russell Crowe. You’ll investigate portrayals of ancient Roman life on the big screen and small screen; learn how to tease out fact from fiction in some of Hollywood’s most stunning spectacles; and deepen your appreciation for films that, when made right, are thrilling time machines into the past.

Survey Landmark Film and TV

For A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome, Professor Aldrete has assembled 13 of what he and many other film buffs consider to be the most important films set in ancient Rome. These are movies we remember for their performances, their costumes and set designs, and the ways they influenced the movies made in their wake. A few of the features you will explore include:

  • Quo Vadis: This high-profile 1951 film, starring Peter Ustinov as the tyrannical emperor Nero and Deborah Kerr as a virtuous young Christian girl, established a successful (and lucrative) template for movies about classical antiquity and the early Christian world, and sparked a cultural fire for sword-and-sandal flicks.
  • I, Claudius: Based on two novels by Robert Graves, this BBC miniseries tracks the intimate lives of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which includes the emperors Claudius, Caligula, and Tiberius. The show also captured the attention of a second group of viewers: those obsessed with England’s royal family.
  • Fellini Satyricon: Italian director Federico Fellini’s experimental film, based on the ancient novel Satyricon by Petronius, was very much a product of the cinematic and social revolutions of the 1960s—both of which left an indelible mark on this picaresque story of a pleasure-seeking young Roman man.
  • Gladiator: Essentially a remake of the 1964 film, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Ridley Scott’s blockbuster film from 2000 was a commercial and cultural triumph that snagged Academy Awards, spawned memorable catchphrases, and inspired a host of new sword-and-sandal epics in the subsequent decade, including Troy and 300.

Some films you may already be a fan of; other films you might have only heard of in passing. But all of them are essential to a well-rounded understanding of the intricate relationship between the world of ancient Rome and the world of the movies.

Walk the Line between Truth and Fiction

A scholar who’s spent his entire career immersed in the history of the ancient Roman world (from ancient body armor to everyday life), Professor Aldrete reveals the historical accuracies and inaccuracies of the ancient Roman world depicted in these films. When filmmakers seemingly got certain aspects of history wrong, Professor Aldrete provides a window into how and why the creators made certain decisions and navigated the tenuous line between truth and entertainment. For example, you’ll discover that:

  • Ben-Hur‘s naval battle, while a reasonable depiction of naval warfare in the ancient Roman world, nevertheless, depicts the oarsmen of the warships as slaves (they weren’t) and being sent to the galleys as punishment (it wasn’t);
  • Spartacus misrepresents the title character’s historical legacy by depicting his revolt as a growing movement challenging slavery, when in reality, it marked the end of popular opposition to the institution;
  • I, Claudius portrays the character of Livia as a mass murderer who kills multiple members of her own family to clear the way for her son, Tiberius—a notion that has been proven to likely be false, and can be traced to a specific ancient historian, Cassius Dio.
  • Gladiator uses the familiar “thumbs down” gesture to indicate a defeated gladiator should be killed, whereas, recent scholarship has revealed this gesture was most likely a way of calling for the victor to drop his weapon and spare his enemy;
  • HBO’s Rome gets many things right about everyday life in ancient Rome, including two characteristics of Roman religion—that it’s a component of nearly all facets of life and that individuals differ in their degrees of belief; and
  • Fellini Satyricon, despite its surreal components, depicts a marriage ceremony accurately by dressing the bride with an orange veil and having the guests throw nuts at the couple and shout “feliciter” in congratulations.

Go behind the Scenes of Cinematic Classics

Along with a revealing look at ancient history, these lectures also examine the art and craft of big-budget filmmaking. A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome takes you behind the scenes to reveal how iconic films can be made—or unmade—by everything from clashes between directors and actors to out-of-control budgets.

For example, you’ll learn how:

  • Early epics like Ben-Hur couldn’t rely on the luxury of computer-generated effects and, therefore, had to construct impressive, full-sized replicas of ancient Roman sites like the Forum or the Circus Maximus;
  • Fall of the Roman Empire was the true box-office bomb that tanked the sword-and-sandals genre for decades (not Cleopatra, as popularly believed); and
  • Creative differences between a historical consultant and the producers of Gladiator reflect the way filmmakers ditch historical accuracy for the sake of drama.

Professor Aldrete also highlights profound connections between these films and the wider historical culture in which they first appeared. Quo Vadis, for example, made only a few years after the end of World War II, noticeably portrays the Romans as mirror images of the Nazis. And Spartacus, despite its message of freedom, became the target of McCarthy-era conservative and religious groups who condemned it for being anti-American.

A Guide for Tomorrow’s Great Films

Of course, the end of this exciting lecture series doesn’t mean there isn’t more to come. Roman history continues to inspire new cinematic depictions, and A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome is a welcome guide to settings, themes, and “bread-and-circus” plots that popular culture just can’t let go of.

Professor Aldrete’s lectures leave you excited about how tomorrow’s movies will depict the ancient world—and eager to discover what those creative works will reveal about both the past and the times in which they’re made.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 32 minutes each
  • 1
    Quo Vadis Kick-Starts the Sword-and-Sandal Genre
    Few films did as much to shape the modern movie-going public’s notions of ancient Rome as Quo Vadis. Discover how this film, released in 1951 by MGM Studios, ushered in the golden age of the so-called “sword-and-sandal” picture, with its irresistible formula of evil, arrogant Romans versus virtuous, devout Christians. x
  • 2
    Ben-Hur: The Greatest Chariot Race
    Ben-Hur, from 1959, was an enormous financial risk that nevertheless became a cash machine for MGM Studios. In this lecture, unpack the intricate tensions between the Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur and the Roman aristocrat Messala, then analyze the historical accuracies (and inaccuracies) of the film's iconic naval battle and chariot race sequences. x
  • 3
    Spartacus: Kubrick's Controversial Epic
    Discover what makes Spartacus—despite being one of the best-known cinema epics of ancient Rome—something of an oddity. It’s a gladiator film with only one scene of combat. Its production was rife with conflict. Its narrative misrepresents the real-life Spartacus’s goals. And it played an important role in Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist movement. x
  • 4
    Cleopatra: Spectacle Gone Wild
    How did the 1963 film, Cleopatra, bring about the destruction of the golden age of epic films set in ancient Rome—and destroy the old Hollywood studio system? How does this film treat the historical accounts of figures like Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Octavian? Why do its grand costumes and sets still deserve admiration? x
  • 5
    The Fall of the Roman Empire and Ancient Epics
    With its $19 million price tag and its $4.75 million in returns, The Fall of the Roman Empire was an unmitigated financial disaster. From its connections to 1960s global politics to its elaborate reconstruction of the Roman Forum to its bleak ending, explore why some critics and scholars regard this as a sophisticated take on ancient Rome. x
  • 6
    I, Claudius: The BBC Makes an Anti-Epic
    Consider the 1976 BBC production of I, Claudius, which has been credited as one of the most influential and memorable portraits of the ancient world ever to appear on the screen—big or small. Set between 24 B.C. and A.D. 54, the miniseries created an intimate look at the reigns of emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. x
  • 7
    Life of Brian: The Roman World's a Funny Place
    What would a parody of sword-and-sandal films, with all their genre conventions and clichés, look like? Discover how Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a witty parody of both biblical and Roman epic films, took on gladiatorial games, ancient Roman society and religion, and the human tendency toward factionalism and tribalism. x
  • 8
    Gladiator: The Historical Epic Revived
    Why did big-budget epics of the ancient world fall out of fashion? How did the 2000 film, Gladiator, single-handedly resuscitate a genre that had been dormant for nearly 40 years? What has recent scholarship revealed about the film’s portrayals of gladiator battles and the lives of ancient Roman emperors—their truths, falsehoods, and embellishments? x
  • 9
    Rome: HBO's Gritty Take on Ancient History
    To get a sense of what living in ancient Rome was really like for the average person, the best place to look is the HBO miniseries, Rome. Learn how, despite its flaws, this short-lived series offers accurate (if gritty) views of different religious beliefs, the role of slavery in ancient Roman society, and more. x
  • 10
    Centurion and The Eagle: The Legions in Britain
    Explore two films that take on the legendary story of an ancient Roman legion lost in the mists of Britain. Both Centurion and The Eagle, while not as well-known as some of the other films featured in this course, nevertheless, offer solid insights into Roman military tactics and raise central issues about Roman imperialism. x
  • 11
    Scipione l'africano and Fellini Satyricon
    While both were Italian productions, Scipione l’africano and Fellini Satyricon couldn’t be more dissimilar in style. Examine how these two films—one a pompous work of propaganda from 1937, the other a subversive piece of overindulgence from 1969—are best seen as products of the eras in which they were made. x
  • 12
    Bread and Circuses in Sci-Fi Films
    The Hunger Games, The Matrix, The Running Man, Rollerball, Ready Player One—each of these wildly different sci-fi films derive their premise from a line of poetry by the ancient Roman satirist Juvenal. How has a simple motif about “bread and circuses” powered some of the most memorable sci-fi plots in cinema? x

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Your professor

Gregory S. Aldrete

About Your Professor

Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
Dr. Gregory S. Aldrete is Professor of Humanistic Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, where he has taught since 1995. He earned his B.A. from Princeton University and his master's degree and Ph.D. in Ancient History from the University of Michigan. Honored many times over for his research and his teaching, Professor Aldrete was named by his university as the winner of its highest awards in each...
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Reviews

A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome is rated 3.7 out of 5 by 37.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from It seems appropriate This has been an extremely enjoyable course, and the presenter is about right.
Date published: 2020-07-18
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Missing: It needed clips of movies that the lecture was discussing. It’s a shame that you are hindered by copyright infringement Rules. I would’ve hoped for some way of working through that it would’ve made the lectures much more vivid and fun.
Date published: 2020-07-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Entertainment and History I am enjoying this lecture series. The lecturer is energetic and fits the image of a Hollywood officianado. Nice to see the films' historical accuracies and inaccuracies. I looked at The Fall of the Roman Empire on demand just to see the historically accurate sets of the forum and Roman senate interior. I see why the movie didn't do well at the box office despite the outstanding actors. Anything Roman fascinates. Looking forward to seeing what the lecturer has to say about Life of Brian!
Date published: 2020-07-02
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Just So-So I appreciate the information about the history of the various films. The delivery is hard to watch, I prefer the book, but look up and listen for unique bits of information. There are not enough stills from the movies and so far, no film excerpts to illustrate the amazing scenes that he is telling us about.
Date published: 2020-06-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating subject I loved this course. The professor was knowledgeable and explained what the movies got right as well as wrong. Many people complained that they were unhappy that actual scenes from the films were not shown; however, I didn’t miss that at all. Deciding which scenes to show to illustrate the facts discussed would make the lectures twice as long. I liked the course just as it was presented. I can always see a film myself if I want to refresh my memory or watch the entire thing for the first time.
Date published: 2020-06-04
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Disappointing Have so far watched only the first lecture. I expected that with this title we would see some clips from the movie. Instead multiple shots of the movie poster and a few stills of the performers. No mention of the producer, director etc. Also he says Quo Vadis was the first of its genre, but Samson and Delilah was 2 years earlier. I will hope the rest are better
Date published: 2020-05-29
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Like art history without the art While the analyses present in this course are interesting and, no doubt, critically on target it's hard to tell unless you've seen the films, the sets, the actors, the costumes. The lectures are completely lacking in visual clues as to what the lecturer is talking about - not a snippet of one of the films, only a few shots of the casts and little else other than the movie posters. It was a lot like hearing about artists and never seeing their art. The course thus winds up being a series of art critic reviews without providing any evidence. Interesting but not worth the price. It would be much less expensive to do a search for the written reviews in newspapers and magazines. And another issue - there have been many more film depictions of ancient Rome for a much longer time period than covered in this course which basically begins in the 1950s. Many silent films tackled the subject matter as have the film versions of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (with Marlon Brando) and Anthony Hopkins in Titus Andronicus.
Date published: 2020-05-27
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A Historian Goes to the Movies I bought this about a month ago at a discount. The quality of the script is very good AS A PODCAST but not worth buying as a video. There were very few illustrations and no movie clips. I feel that most of your presentations are reliable as to quality but way overpriced. I would never buy a production from you at full price not when there are so many quality podcasts out there and even books on tape on youtube
Date published: 2020-05-10
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