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The time of the Roman emperors is best known to modern movie goers for the first five ambitious men who held the throne, the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. The first of them, Octavian, nephew of Julius Caesar, was made Emperor Augustus in 14 BCE at the age of thirty-six. Tiberius reigned for twenty-two years after Augustus, but never got his own movie. Tiberius was on the throne at the time of the crucifixion of Christ, but was too caught up in his own debauchery to give it any notice. Caligula ruled for only four years but got a movie bearing his name that captured the full range of his depravity.

Claudius, though hardly an exemplary emperor, presided over thirteen years of relative calm and decorum until, as it is thought, he was murdered by his wife. He is best known in our times for his portrayal by Derek Jacobi in the television miniseries, I Claudius (1976), which features all five of the Julio-Claudian emperors in its cast of characters. Then there is Nero, famous for his fabulous excesses and his ignominious end. He lasted thirteen years. There are other film personifications of the first five terrible emperors, and there are a few other emperors over the next four centuries who got parts in movies, though rarely starring roles. See the posts below.

Generally, the emperors lived at the Palatine Palace complex along the hill between the Circus Maximus and the Forum. The royalty had a private arena for intimate gladiatorial combats, which can be seen in Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) and in Constantine and the Cross (1962). Not all of the emperors were satisfied with residences on the Palatine. Legend has it that Nero burned the city of Rome in order to reconfigure its architecture and make way for his own palace, called the Domus Aurea. Like those who preceded him on the throne, he could not relinquish imperial power to allow for rule by the people.

After Nero’s suicide, the Domus Aurea was covered over by emperors who wished to erase the embarrassment of his memory. Excavations in recent years have allowed for intermittent visitations by the public. Emperor Vespasian began construction of the Colosseum on this site. Once there was a colossal statue of Nero that dominated this spot, and that is how the Colosseum got its name. Sadly, there is no movie about Vespasian and his sons, who gave us the world’s most infamous public entertainment facility. The problem of rotating imperial statuary was solved over the years by creating a single body with interchangeable heads. Fashions changed less often than emperors (see above).

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