There are two myths on the origins of Rome and they are in conflict. Attempts have been made to reconcile the differences, but the results have been awkward. An early legend has it that Rome was founded in 753 BCE by Romulus, who became its first king. He was already a legend by virtue of his unconventional upbringing. He and his brother Remus were found abandoned in the wild by a she-wolf who took them to her cave and suckled them as if they were her own. The cave was on the side of the Palatine Hill, which in later centuries sat between the Forum and the Circus Maximus. A growing rivalry between the twin brothers was resolved when Romulus killed Remus and founded the settlement that would become Rome. The time of the Kings is said to have lasted from 753 to 509 BCE, with the founding of the Republic.

It was on the site of the future Circus Maximus that Romulus carried out his most famous campaign. His new settlement was inhabited only by his warriors and women were needed to build families and community. The King invited a tribe called the Sabines to attend a feast, and to bring their wives. Once the wine was flowing, the new Romans grabbed up the Sabine women, carrying them to their own households. Some called it rape and they would not be wrong. Others preferred to call it abduction, invoking the legitimizing traditions of Greek mythology. In a superb demonstration of self-serving myth, the Romans embellished this tale to suggest that the Sabine women came to love their Roman husbands and intervened in a confrontation between the enraged Sabine men and the militarily superior Romans. The only film I have found that touches on this subject is an Italian sword-and-sandal production, which has little concern for authenticity.

Romulus and the Sabines  (1961) – Italian

This film is listed as a comedy and I suppose I see the point. It features a young Roger Moore as the legendary first king of Rome. The formula involves a bevy of beautiful Italian girls with breasts like eggplants. Several key roles are played by French actors including the daughter of the King of the Sabines – Moore’s ultimate love interest. She is a Vestal Virgin reserved for the gods. They deviate from the traditional story in one key element. Instead of inviting the Sabines to their feast at the foot of the Palatine Hill, they crash a Sabine festival, interrupting the games, and carry off their women. Back in the Roman encampment, which already boasts a rudimentary forum, the women feel empowered and demand to chose their own men instead of being apportioned like cattle. While this is going on, the Virgin escapes and Romulus is left a sad bachelor. He has a dream where Mars and Venus argue over his fate and Venus is triumphant. Unsurprisingly, he is reunited with the love of his life and they ride off together in search of simple bliss.

The other foundation myth for Rome is the epic poem by Virgil, the Aeneid. It was commissioned by Emperor Augustus and consumed the last eleven years of the poet’s life. He died at the age of 50 while returning from a trip to Greece in 19 BCE. With a heavy debt to Homer, the epic tells the story of the Trojan hero, Aeneas, who survived the Trojan War and led a contingent of pioneers to Italy with a plan to start fresh. His father was related to Priam, King of Troy, and his mother was Venus.

The Avenger  (1962) – Italian

This Steve Reeves epic had several titles in different countries. The story is loosely extracted from the second half of the Aeneid with extreme liberties taken by the filmmakers. Reeves plays Enea (Aeneas), surviving hero of Troy, leading a group of refugees into Italy where they make camp on the banks of the Tiber. They petition King Latino for permission to build a settlement but they are violently opposed by another tribal leader who has designs on power in the region. Enea visits the court of the King and is welcomed. He comes upon a mural of the battle at Troy and relives the defeat of his country in flashbacks.

The King has a beautiful daughter who looks favorably on Enea. After some bad dancing, King Latino grants the Trojans sovereignty over the lands at the fork in the Tiber. But there is dissension among the other tribes. The Trojans are tricked into killing a priest and his son and an insurrection results. The enemy of the Trojans leads an attack on their stockade. It is a kind of miniaturization of the Trojan War with the appalled Trojans standing at their walls looking at the approach of a vastly superior military force. The ensuing battle is a confused and oddly static affair.

Finally, Enea rides to the palace of King Latino and proposes that he meet the enemy leader, man-to-man, outside the walls of the Trojan stockade. Once again, the movie mimics the Iliad and the two foes fight first from chariots and then on foot. Enea kills his opponent and walks back to his rejoicing people. A screen text says that two great legends, the Fall of Troy and the Founding of Rome, converged at this point and led to the rise of Western Civilization. This is not the best of the Reeves movies, and it is poor history, but bits and pieces of it illustrate the second foundation myth of Rome.

There is another Italian movie that fills the gap in the early history of Rome. It is Cabiria, made in 1914. Set in the time of the Punic wars, when Rome battled Carthage for dominance of the Mediterranean, this was a blockbuster movie at the very beginning of cinematic history.

Romans at the Saturday Matinee

The culture of the Roman Republic (circa 515–27 BCE) received an infusion of Greek influence midway in its life. Livius Andronicus (c. 284 – c. 204 BCE) was a Greek slave brought to Rome and respected for his literary abilities. The plays he wrote earned him the distinction of “father of Roman drama.” These plays and those that followed in their wake were heavily influenced by the Greek originals. The Romans are performed far less often than the Greeks in today’s theaters. If any Roman playwright can be said to be well regarded in our times, it would be Plautus (d. 184 BCE), who wrote popular comedies.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum  (1966)

This film of the 1962 Broadway musical comedy took its inspiration from a comedy written by Plautus, called Pseudolus. One achievement of this show is that it illuminates the relatedness of Roman comedy and American vaudeville. Two thousand years of Western tradition were brought together on a New York stage. There were a few improvements to the theater facility, such as temperature control and a roof overhead, and the songs were better, but the laughs were the same. The opening song was “Comedy Tonight.”

The original Broadway production starred Zero Mostel and director Richard Lester has seen fit to bring his prodigious talents to the film. Mostel plays the cunning slave called Pseudolus, joined by vaudeville icons Buster Keaton, Phil Silvers and Jack Gilford. The inconsequential plot revolves around the efforts of the clever and conniving Pseudolus to win his freedom by arranging a marriage between two young and ill-fated lovers. True to Roman origins and New York show business, women are treated as comely property or “witless viragos” (Kael). The comics sing, “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.” Keaton arrives on a litter. He is a wealthy citizen named Erronius and therefore the butt of rude gags. A couple of years later, this would have been a Mel Brooks movie. It climaxes with an absurd Lesteresque chariot chase across the Italian countryside. All the players return to Rome for one of those discovery scenes where fathers, sons, and daughters are reunited. There is a fragmented reprise of “Comedy Tonight.”

This is low comedy at its best. If the Romans had produced Broadway musicals, they would have done it just this way.

Fellini Satyricon  (1970)

A different perspective on the workings of ancient Roman theater can be found in Fellini Satyricon. This was a “free adaptation” of the Petronius novel, written in the time of Nero. It was never a play and it was not about theater life, but there is a scene with a grotesque actor on a makeshift stage that dramatizes some of the exuberant vulgarity that energized the comedy of the time. The rest of the film is composed of a series of Felliniesque vignettes taken from the surreal and provocative work of Petronius. It is a passage through the underbelly of ancient Rome. This one is not for family viewing.

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