Many of the best film portraits of the emperors of Rome are found in films not devoted to the emperor himself. There are only four movies on my list that take one of the early emperors as their primary subject, one of which is a TV miniseries. It is easy to get the impression that the heightened imperial misbehavior of this time was designed to prove the insufficiency of the emperor model of leadership. And it is difficult to understand why the Roman populace did not clamor for a return to Republic. The first of the five was Augustus, a complicated mix of emperor qualities.

The collapse of the Republic has been previewed in Movies about Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. After the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, his nephew, Octavian, emerged as his chosen heir. He would become Augustus Caesar, first Emperor of the Roman Empire. The name Caesar was now better known as an honorific for emperors than as a family name. The portrayal of Octavian in Cleopatra (1963) as a sniveling wimp has always seemed to me a neglect of the strengths that allowed him to be named Emperor after 500 years of Republic, and to rule for 40 years. He may not have been a classic Roman leader of men, but he must have had compensating qualities. The movie below gives us a stronger and more admirable Augustus Caesar.

Imperium: Augustus  (2003)

Made largely in Tunis, this film captures the colors of Rome and makes some sense of the intrigues in this time of transition between Republic and Empire. Peter O’Toole is the aging Emperor Augustus and it is through his twilight memories that the events of his life are framed. O’Toole has just the right mix of frailty and flinty intelligence to make Augustus believable.

His recollections take him back to his youth when he fought in Spain under the command of his uncle, Julius Caesar. His prowess in battle earns him high regard and Caesar names him as his heir. Caesar is played with the right blend of Roman politician and warrior general. Back in Rome, Caesar’s attention is absorbed by his infatuation with Cleopatra, until he is murdered on the floor of the Senate. The assassination sparks civil war among those who would seize power. Ultimately, Octavian is pitted against Mark Anthony and is victorious.

Seventeen years after the death of Julius Caesar, Octavian becomes Augustus Caesar in 27 BCE, at the age of 36. His memories now dwell on family dramas involving his wife, Livia, and his daughter, Julia. Livia is trying to maneuver her son, Tiberius, to the head of the line of succession. Julia is promiscuous and an embarrassment to her father. Augustus recalls with much regret the bargains he made and the atrocities he committed in order to unify Rome under one leader. In the end, Augustus is assailed by old age. A scene in the Senate where the Emperor demands that he be obeyed in the matter of the banishment of his daughter shows that O’Toole, at just over seventy, has not lost his power to hold an audience. Augustus died in 14 CE after a reign of forty years and was succeeded by Tiberius.

Tiberius in the Movies

After the death of Augustus, his wife, Livia, successfully guided her son, Tiberius, onto the throne. Some suspected she used poison to clear the way. Tiberius came to be known for his depravities, which stayed mainly within the loose bounds of Roman royal decorum. Mother and son got along well at first, but soon she became domineering and he retreated to his summer residence on the Isle of Capri. He ruled until 37 CE, making him a background figure in New Testament Movies. Both Tiberius and Caligula appear in The Robe (1953), though the performances are not memorable.  Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays Tiberius in Salome (1953).  He is seen at length in I, Claudius (1976). The older Tiberius makes a brief appearance in Ben-Hur (1959), and he is played by Peter O’Toole in Caligula.

The 1980 film, Caligula, gave the third Emperor exactly the film he deserved. In The Robe, and its sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), Caligula is played by the same actor. In I, Claudius, Caligula is shown to be far more bizarre than the robust Malcolm McDowell in the movie below.

Caligula  (1980)

This film is presented by Bob Guccione and Penthouse Films International, and expectations were not high. The Video Movie Guide dismisses it as “a $15 million dollar porno flick with big stars.” Maltin also calls it porno. It’s a potent mix of nudity, sex, and graphic violence. He feels that the Emperor got a better treatment in The Robe movies. But the work is surprisingly interesting; an odd combination of Fellini and I Claudius, based on a screenplay by Gore Vidal. A print screen establishes the time frame as 37-41 AD.

It opens with young Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) frolicking in the woods with his sister Drusilla. They are playing satyr and nymph and are hardly dressed. Caligula goes to see his grandfather, Tiberius, probably at Capri. The Emperor (Peter O’Toole) is old and scabby but still enjoys splashing in his large pool with his naked “little fishes.” Tiberius is alternately glad to see Caligula, and suspicious of his motives. He whispers that he is nursing a viper in the bosom of Rome. The older Nerva (John Gielgud) is there, and enacts a poignant suicide attempt. Claudius is also on hand,  playing the unstable fool. The visit ends with the murder of Tiberius by an ambitious courtier named Macro.

Now Caligula is Emperor, and he keeps Drusilla at his side. The atrocities begin to layer up. Caligula wants to marry Drusilla, but she arranges for him to marry a priestess of Isis. He chooses the scheming Caesonia (Helen Mirren), and keeps her on a leash. The fog of paranoid delusion is beginning to gather about him, and he wants to be known as a god. He venerates his horse. Caesonia is carrying his child; it will be a girl. Just as the Emperor’s celebration of his absolute power is reaching its peak, Drusilla is felled by scarlet fever. Caligula is unhinged and, cursing Isis, carries her nude body about in a macabre parody of the opening frolic.

Next we see him roaming the Roman streets in disguise, where he witnesses a satirical street performance mocking his reign. He disrupts the show and is taken to a jail. Back at the palace, he establishes an Imperial brothel where the senator’s wives are compelled to serve. It is yet another opportunity for orgiastic staging. He conducts a travesty of war in Britain, and returns to Rome declaring himself a conqueror only to find he is not loved. He is brutally cut down by men that have served him. The credits roll over his bleeding corpse. This is not for the young or squeamish.

I, Claudius  (1976) – BBC / PBS Television

This is a Masterpiece Theatre production (BBC) based on the Robert Graves novels, I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935). The low budget for this thirteen-episode drama dictates that the action be confined to intimate interiors that highlight the influence of British theater production. This is a Roman drama presented in the vocal stylings of highly trained classical actors, making it seem more like Shakespeare. The prosthetic makeup, on the other hand, is surprisingly amateurish; made for the stage, not for TV.

The series is framed by the efforts of the aging Emperor Claudius to write a secret account of his life and times. Derek Jacobi was an ideal choice for this role. The memoir begins with Emperor Augustus Caesar, who is played as heavyset and jovial, a casting mistake. The Emperor’s wife, Livia, brings a fine edge of cunning to her role. Her son, Tiberius, now full grown and already bitter, waits in the wings for a chance at the throne. Livia must dispose of those who come before him. Claudius makes clear that he has chosen to emphasize his stammer and physical disabilities to give the appearance of being nonthreatening. Augustus appears to be less mad than those who came after him, though his family life was a disaster.

This version of the lives of the emperors leaves no doubt that Livia poisons her husband at the age of 75 and succeeds at installing Tiberius in his place. Tiberius begins well enough but the dominance of his mother drives him into retreat at Capri, there to indulge his carnal appetites. He lasted 22 years before being helped to a better world by his nephew, Caligula. During this time, Sejanus (Patrick Stewart) makes a bid for power but fails. Tiberius has him executed.

It is now 37 CE and Caligula is Emperor. He will last less than four years. Wasting no time, he begins a descent into madness and depravity that will remain unmatched for generations to come. He declares himself the god Zeus and names his sister Drusilla as his wife, the goddess Hera. When Drusilla becomes pregnant with his child, he strips her naked, cuts the baby from her womb, and eats it. Half of this happens onscreen. His offenses further pile up until those around him can see no recourse but to plot assassination. The idealists among the assassins see this as an opportunity to restore the Republic. When Caligula is cut down by his guards, however, they are suddenly inspired to name Claudius the new Emperor. They pick him up and parade him on their shoulders, like the King of Fools.

Claudius is disconcerted at first, but adjusts quickly to the idea of becoming emperor and persuades the Senate to confirm his position. He reveals himself to be far more capable than anyone thought he would be. His wife, Messalina, the mother of his children, shows herself to be pathologically ambitious and sexually voracious. She attempts to seduce an honorable man and plays the innocent when Claudius sentences him to death for preying on his wife. The Emperor leads the Roman army to Britain to secure the territory under Roman rule. While he is gone, his wife stirs up a monumental scandal with her wanton behavior. The returning Emperor must sadly have her executed.

It is now 54 CE and Claudius is worried about his legacy. He marries the conniving Agrippinilla and adopts her son Nero. The boy is overweight and spoiled, but his mother is determined to see him on the throne. Claudius, the conscience of his nation, has conceived a plan. He will collude in putting Nero on the throne so the people will revolt and restore the Republic. He allows himself to be poisoned by his wife, but the plan fails to work. The people who endured Caligula, accepted Nero.


There are two Hollywood movies that picture Nero in the time between the burning of Rome in 64 CE and his death in 68 CE. They are The Sign of the Cross (1932), and Quo Vadis? (1951) They follow almost identical story lines. Both films dwell on the popular legend of Nero as Antichrist, and both create dramatic tension between Nero and his dissatisfied general, named Marcus. The general will fall in love with a Christian woman and sacrifice his career in the end. Both films conclude with the Christians being blamed for the Great Fire and delivered to the lions in an arena filled with Romans in need of entertainment.

The Sign of the Cross (1932)

This Pre-Code picture was heavily censored in the 1930s but was restored in 1993. Claudette Colbert plays the Empress Poppaea. Her nudity in a bath of asses’ milk, though discreet, was notorious. The scene of milking the asses is memorable. She would go on to star in Cleopatra (1934). This Cecil B. DeMille production goes to extra lengths in depicting the decadence of Rome.

A young and effete Charles Laughton plays Nero and seems very right for the role. He is about thirty-three years old; the real Nero was thirty when he died. Frederick March plays Marcus who loves a virginal Christian girl named Mercia. The final scenes in the arena are full of elaborate spectacle to please the ravenous crowd, and maximum horror for the Christians.

The trailer features a World War II add-on put into a 1944 reissue of the film. American airmen are flying over Rome as the Allied invasion progresses. They spot the Colosseum as a landmark and are reminded by their chaplain that this was the place where Christians were persecuted almost 2000 years ago. The airmen are uplifted by the thought that they are continuing the Christian tradition of opposing oppression. The film mistakenly puts the Colosseum in the time of Nero.  See Colosseum.

Quo Vadis? (Whither goest thou?)  (1951)

Nero is played by Peter Ustinov, who represents him as a hedonistic buffoon. Petronius (author of the Satyricon) is featured as an adviser to the Emperor. The disciples, Peter and Paul, are preaching in the Catacombs. The ending in the arena is telescoped to include the crucifixion of Peter and the suicide of Nero. Robert Taylor plays Marcus and Debra Kerr is the Christian girl, named Lygia. This version of the story keeps closer to the outlines of the original Polish novel, Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero (1895). DeMille took more liberties.

In Nero: The Decline of the Empire (2005), the Emperor is played as a young Republican idealist trapped in an autocrat’s body. This was an attempt by Italian filmmakers to rehabilitate the image of Nero after centuries of ridicule and demonization.

Nero: The Decline of the Empire  (2005) – HBO – Italian

Premiered in Italy, this film begins by framing Nero’s coming of age as the story of an idealistic young man who is perhaps too pure-hearted to stand up to the brutal realities of first-century Rome. He survives the reign of Caligula in his childhood and becomes Emperor after the fourteen-year reign of Claudius. In a now familiar pattern, the handsome youth of seventeen years is helped to the throne by his mother. She forces him into a marriage but he exits quickly. He is in love with a former slave girl named Acte and becomes engaged to her. The two lovers sit on a hillside overlooking the city of Rome and dream of changing the world for the better.

In the Senate, Nero pursues a program of democratic reform causing consternation among the elite. The political idealist is making powerful enemies. When his mother plots against his ambitions, the two become adversaries, and he has her killed. He must also eliminate his brother Britannicus to save his throne. His would-be wife has run off to be with the Christians. As if his life needed more complications, the seductive Poppaea arrives in Nero’s bedchamber to take his mind off past relationships. Seneca opposes the Emperor’s crimes and is forced to commit suicide.

In 64 CE, Rome burns and the conflagration is a metaphor of the madness of Nero. The Emperor’s grand vision is to rebuild Rome according to his dream of perfection. He is persuaded to blame the Christians for the fire. When Poppaea falls ill while carrying Nero’s child, he calls on the Christian prophet, Paul, to save her. When Paul cannot do it, the Christians are condemned to horrible deaths.

It is 68 CE, General Galba arrives in the city to strike a deal with the Pretorians to assume the throne. Nero, the poor lost boy, thirty-one years old,  sits by a river lamenting his fate. He commits suicide alone, by cutting his wrists. Acte turns up for an obligatory death-in-the-arms-of-the-beloved scene. While his body burns, Acte’s voice intones, “Nero had a dream of a better world. He did not start the fire, but the fire in his soul consumed him. Let us forgive him as we hope to be forgiven.”

Presenting Nero as an innocent who is not to blame for the offenses he is driven to commit by the politics of Empire creates a suspicion that the movie was funded by the Rome Chamber of Commerce. If he were on trial today, his lawyers would plead not guilty by reason of insanity. All of the primary people and events depicted in the movie are historical, but the lens is clouded by romantic fantasy. Even so, it is a sometimes intriguing piece of popular folklore. The women are beautiful, the men are handsome, and the scenes of Rome are opulent and gleaming.

There is another film that features a young and attractive Nero in the early stages of his thirteen-year reign. Boudica Warrior Queen (2003) is the story of confrontations between Celtic tribes in Britannia and the Roman occupation force inherited by Nero from his uncle Claudius. See Barbarians at the Walls of Rome.

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