The Fall of the Roman Empire  (1964)

It’s a mystery to me why the filmmakers claimed to have based this work on Edward Gibbon’s landmark The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89). This six-volume classic by an 18th century historian marks the onset of Rome’s decline from the death of the last of the “Five Good Emperors:” Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, and Marcus Aurelius. Gibbon has little to say about the first five terrible emperors, or the three emperors of the Flavian dynasty who built the Colosseum over the site of Nero’s palace. But he observes that the Empire took a turn for the worse with the death of Marcus Aurelius and the ascension of his son, Commodus, to the throne in 180 CE. Though the six volumes of Decline and Fall stretch all the way through the Muslim conquest of Constantinople and the collapse of the Eastern Empire in 1453, this movie deals with only the time of transition from Marcus Aurelius to Commodus. The story is familiar to those who have seen Gladiator (2000). See Movies about Gladiators and Their Arenas.

This version of the story stars Alec Guinness as Marcus Aurelius and Christopher Plummer as Commodus. Stephen Boyd is Livius, the general favored as an heir by the Emperor over his profligate son. Sophia Loren, looking splendid, is Lucilla, sister of Commodus and beloved by Livius. Commodus poisons Marcus Aurelius with an apple and takes the throne. He is determined to demonstrate he is not cut from the same cloth as his father. Historically, Marcus Aurelius died elsewhere and not by the hand of his son.

Livius is on the northern border defending the Empire against the barbarians. Rome is beset with a plague and Livius returns to find Commodus in crisis. The Eastern Empire is in revolt from Egypt to Syria. Livius is sent to that front. The rebels have made an alliance with the Persians. There is a great battle, with thousands of extras flailing swords. Livius is victorious, and Commodus offers him half the throne of Rome. Livius declines. Rome descends into decadent chaos. Commodus is thoroughly mad and offers himself to the mob as a god. He challenges Livius to a fight to the death on the Forum in an improvised arena formed by soldiers holding shields. Livius kills Commodus in a sword fight, and is hailed as the new Caesar. He walks away from the job, with Loren, while others frantically bid for the throne. The closing narration says “This was the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire” and that Rome destroyed itself from within. This thought is attributable to the historian Will Durant who acted as adviser to the film. He must have been embarrassed by the result.

Maltin is way off base on this one, crediting it with “intelligent scripting, and good direction,” placing it “far above the usual empty-headed spectacle.” This is among the worst directed serious films I have ever seen. Every opportunity for drama is squandered and turns quickly to tedium. Neither film feels a responsibility to historical accuracy. The film never shows Commodus in the arena, though that activity is the centerpiece of his legend. It failed at the box office. I suppose it can be said that the Empire destroyed itself from within.

After Commodus, the Empire continued in a state of crisis for another century until Emperor Diocletian made the practical move of dividing it in two, in 285 CE, creating the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire. Among his less admirable accomplishments, Diocletian conducted the last institutional persecution of Christians by the Romans. The stage was set for Rome’s dramatic shift to Christianity under Constantine.

Constantine and the Cross  (1962)

Constantine I, Vatican Museum, Rome

Constantine I, Vatican Museum, Rome

A screen legend speaks of the division of Rome into East and West. The West is ruled by Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305). Constantine (c. 272 – 337) is an ambitious young general serving under the command of his father on the northern frontiers of the Empire. He is ordered back to Rome and is ambushed by bandits along the road. One of his men, named Hadrian, is wounded and is nursed back to health by a Christian family with a very lovely daughter named Livia. Arriving in Rome, Constantine (Cornell Wilde) finds the Christians being persecuted. In a small arena next to the palace, they are being thrown to lions as entertainment for the nobility. Constantine rescues a small boy whose mother is devoured.

When his father is besieged on the frontier, Constantine rushes to his aid. On his deathbed, the father reveals to his son that his mother is a Christian. The death of his father brings Constantine to the throne of Emperor of the West, and he becomes a more active advocate for the Christians. The intrigues and arguments in the Senate grow in intensity. Constantine marries a woman named Fausta whose brother becomes his rival for the crown. Fausta’s father attempts to assassinate him. His enemies learn that his mother, Helena, is in Rome hiding among the Christians. Livia is included in those who are tortured in the efforts to find Helena and she dies in a dungeon. Fausta’s brother, Maxentius, has consolidated the opposition to Constantine. The two enemies meet at the Milvian Bridge where Maxentius reveals that he is holding both Helena and Fausta as hostages. He threatens to kill them. That night, God speaks to Constantine in his tent. Both sides in this Roman civil war hurl large armies at one another but the smaller army of Constantine, perhaps divinely inspired, prevails over the forces of Maxentius. They are fighting knee-deep in the Tiber near the Milvian Bridge, hacking relentlessly with short swords. The two commanders meet and fight man-to-man and Maxentius is killed (not exactly historical). Constantine returns to Rome in victory to be reunited with Fausta and Helena. It is the year 312. Constantine will go on to establish his capital at Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople.

Titus  (2000)

Julie Taymor has chosen Shakespeare’s least known and most disrespected play, aptly named The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, as the material for her film directorial debut. She brings to the project her trademark inventiveness, which in the end only serves alternately to mask or highlight the weaknesses in the play. This is not a history play. All of the characters are fictional, and Roman history is an indistinct backdrop. Nevertheless, it serves as a metaphor for the internal decay of Rome. Anthony Hopkins plays the Roman general, Titus Andronicus, not to be confused with Emperor Titus, son of Vespasian. He has returned to the capital in victory after a ten-year war with the Goths. Among his prisoners is Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and her sons. Tamora (Jessica Lange) pleads with the general not to sacrifice her oldest son, but he will not relent. The old Emperor has died and the crown is offered to Titus. He refuses the honor and hands it off to the Emperor’s incompetent son, named Saturninus (Alan Cumming), a character inspired by Caligula. The new Emperor promptly marries Tamora, who is bent on revenge against Titus.

Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, circa 1940, EUR

Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, circa 1940, EUR

Now unfolds a gory drama of vengeance involving rape, mutilation, and murder; all of which is said to have delighted Elizabethan audiences. In the end, Titus takes his revenge on Saturninus and Tamora by feeding them the flesh of Tamora’s surviving sons baked in a pie, Hopkins parodies himself as Hannibal Lechter – the patron saint of cannibalism and cruelty in our times. Everyone dies in the climax. Taymor has chosen to set her movie in a mix of modern and historical settings. Much of it is played in a stylized Colosseum-like arena before a modern audience – as if to suggest there is a lesson here. Exteriors are shot before the modernist façade of the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, built under Mussolini in the EUR complex on the outskirts of Rome. This film did poorly with the critics, and at the box office. The trailer, however, is delicious.


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