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The Ancient World on Film

Ancient Greece and Rome have been immensely popular as settings for feature films since the earliest days of cinema. Roman epic films like Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis and Gladiator are among the most successful in movie history, while ‘sword 'n' sandal’ films featuring Greek mythological heroes like Hercules influenced spaghetti westerns and action adventure films, and provided Arnold Schwarzenegger with his first screen role.

Visually, antiquity offers opportunities for spectacular architecture and battles, exotic costumes and familiar characters. However, some aspects of antiquity have appeared more frequently than others. The most common themes and some of the reasons for their popularity are listed here.


Cleopatra is the archetypal glamorous wicked woman, whose adulterous love affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony inevitably end in the films with her rehabilitation through love to her proper gender role as submissive female. Her association with luxury has been especially useful for promoting sales of cosmetics and jewellery, clothes and even wigs. The extravagance of the infamous 1963 Cleopatra (Mankiewicz. 1963), in which Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra) and Richard Burton (Antony) played out their real life adulterous affair onscreen, nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox and was parodied in Carry on Cleo (Thomas, 1964) which re-used many of the same sets. Other films include Cleopatra (DeMille, 1934), Caesar and Cleopatra (Pascal 1945), and Antony and Cleopatra (Heston, 1973).

See also Cleopatra, from History in Film. and The Cleopatra Costume on Stage and in Film.


The gladiator serves the cinema not only as an action hero, displaying his muscles in spectacular combats, but also, in his enslaved status, producing narratives about freedom which especially tally with the preoccupations of modern audiences. The myth of Spartacus as a folk-hero for the Left has a long history, but received its definitive presentation in Kubrick's film of 1960. On the other hand, the arena itself has been a metaphor for corruption and bribery since Juvenal's ‘bread and circuses’, and was a frequent topic for 19th century paintings by artists like Jean-Léon Gérôme and Simeon Solomon, from which cinema borrowed its visual representations.

The cinematic gladiator's immense popularity was demonstrated with the revival of the Roman epic in 2000 in Ridley Scott's Gladiator, which raised questions about the nature of heroism, masculinity and celebrity, and borrowed extensively from earlier landmarks such as Spartacus and The Fall of the Roman Empire (Mann, 1964). Other films include Demetrius and the Gladiators, Barabbas (Fleischer, 1962) and The Arena (Carver 1973).

See also Spartacus from History in Film.

Early Christianity

The familiarity of stories from early Christianity and their utility for moral education made this theme especially useful for filmmakers trying to sidestep the voluntary censorship of the 1930 Production Code — the moral lessons and ancient settings acted as justification for scenes of eroticism and violence. After the Second World War, the practice by Nazi and Fascist regimes of borrowing Imperial Roman imagery like eagles and fasces imbued the Christian v. Roman conflicts with extra meaning. In Quo Vadis (Le Roy, 1951), shots of uniform lines of marching soldiers and triumphal balcony speeches consciously aped propaganda footage from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Other films include Sign of the Cross (DeMille, 1932), and The Robe (Koster, 1953), Ben-Hur (Wyler, 1959) and Barabbas (Fleischer, 1962).

For an interesting further perspective on Ben-Hur, see Star Wars Origins.


The popularity of figures from Homer's epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, such as Helen of Troy, Achilles, Hector and Odysseus, and episodes from the Trojan cycle more generally, such as the Trojan Horse, the Sirens and the blinding of the Cyclops give cinema the chance to present familiar names and stories in a variety of cinematic styles. The Coen brothers' 2000 film O Brother Where Art Thou? blended ancient Greek and modern American mythology, placing a hero named Ulysses Everett McGill in a narrative that incorporated chain-gangs, the Depression, the Ku Klux Klan and replaced the Cyclops with a one-eyed Bible salesman. Other films include Ulysses (Camerini, 1955), Helen of Troy (Wise, 1956), The Trojan Horse (Ferroni, 1961) and the upcoming Troy (Peterson, projected release May 2004). See also the official website for Troy.


Hercules' strength and semi-divine status make him the ancient prototype of the modern comic book super-hero. Particularly popular in the ‘peplum’ films mostly made in Italy in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the practice of casting non Italian-speaking champion bodybuilders like Steve Reeves, Reg Park and Arnold Schwarzenegger motivated cinematic narratives more about visual display and action than dialogue and characterisation. The pepla's exuberant disregard for the original myths resulted in films like Hercules Vs the Moonmen (Gentilomo 1964) and Hercules Against the Mongols (Paolella 1963). Nevertheless, the influence of the bodybuilder Hercules persists in more recent representations like the television series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Disney's animated Hercules (Clements & Musker 1997). Other films include Hercules (Francisci, 1958), Hercules Conquers Atlantis (Cottafavi, 1961) and Hercules in New York (Seidelman, 1970).

See also ANICA (Archive of Italian Cinema) and Hercules, from Brian's Drive-In Theater.

Jason and the Golden Fleece

Stories about Jason are among the earliest of the Greek mythological cycles. Like the Odyssey, the voyage of the Argonauts includes meetings with fantastic creatures like the Harpies and the earthborn men of Colchis, which showcase the particular capacity of cinema (noted early by Georges Méliès) for creating illusion by the use of editing, animation and Computer Generated Imagery. In Jason and the Argonauts (Chaffey, 1963), the animator Ray Harryhausen borrowed both from other myths and other film images to include creatures like the seven-headed Hydra, skeleton warriors and Talos, the man of bronze. Jason's story also involves other well-known mythological characters like Medea and Hercules. Other films include Hercules (Francisci 1958), Medea (Pasolini 1969) and the recent Hallmark production Jason and the Argonauts (Willing, 2000).

See also Jason and the Argonauts from The Encyclopaedia of Fantastic Film and Television.

Alexander the Great

The extraordinary life of Alexander of Macedonia has been the subject of many works of written biography and fiction, but until recently only one major film, Alexander the Great (Rossen 1955). Though many stories associated with his life are eminently suited to cinema, Alexander's sexual relationships with both women and men and his heavy drinking made him a problematic hero for family audiences in the post-war years when the ancient world on film was most successful. Recently however his charismatic persona has revived filmmakers' interest, with his efforts to unite Western and Eastern empires seen as especially pertinent in the current global political climate. Proposed films include Alexander (Stone, projected release Nov 2004) and Alexander the Great (Luhrmann, projected release 2005).

See also Alexander the Great on the Web.

Kim Shahabudin, University of Reading