The Fall of the Roman Empire: Film and History

By Theodore, Jonathan | Film & History, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview
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The Fall of the Roman Empire: Film and History


Theodore, Jonathan, Film & History


Martin Winkler, editor The Fall of the Roman Empire: Film and History Blackwell, 2009; 334 pages; $54-95

Edited and introduced by Martin Winkler, The Fall of the Roman Empire: Film and History is a collection of essays providing a wide-ranging treatment of the oft-maligned 1964 movie The Fall of the Roman Empire, from a variety of historical and cinematic perspectives. The book fits within the flourishing recent genre of scholarship exploring cinematic depictions of the ancient world. In the introduction, Winkler places The Fall in the appropriate thematic context of an ongoing 'dialogue' between the classical past and the America of the film's present. The Roman past has long served as a precedent, an ideal, and a warning to American political and cultural commentators, and The Fall provides a powerful example of this trend. Allen Ward in chapter 2, for example, makes particular reference to the spirit of "liberal internationalism" in a movie produced not long after the Cuban missile crisis.1

Yet at the same time, The Fall represents a fairly radical departure from the conventions of the epic genre, and the book highlights and lauds these differences with its peers. The sword-and-sandals spectacles that preceded it, most notably Quo Vadis, were fundamentally religious eschatologies, in which Roman decline was both prophesized and celebrated through the clash of paganism and Christianity.2 Conversely, in The Fall, decline is presented purely in Roman and secular terms: it comes not through military defeat, but moral corruption and the weakening of Roman institutions. The director, Anthony Mann, was interested in Rome at what he thought was its most civilized peak: the end of the age of the Antonines, celebrated by Gibbon (a stated inspiration) as the great water-mark of Roman civilization that preceded a long and grinding decline. The result of this is that The Fall is imbued not with religious triumphalism, but an air of futility and despair - "We leave the cinema with a sense of regret for the doom of Rome."3 Winkler describes The Fall as boldly departing from the epic tradition to focus on "the mechanisms that underlie historical events,"4 declaring that "the film is a serious attempt to do justice to Roman civilization and to make a case for the continuing importance of Roman history."5 Furthermore, the goal of this type of filmmaking is praised not as an attempt to deliver literal factual truth about the past, but to capture the 'feeling' and 'understanding' of history for its audience.6

This praiseworthy perspective informs the choice of much of the content for this volume. It includes translations of major sources about Marcus Aurelius because Winkler deems that historical films such as this are best watched and evaluated alongside the historical record. An essay of Mann's from 1964 (reprinted as chapter 6) demonstrates the same attitude. This comparison extends throughout the book. Diskin Clay, in chapter 3, barely references the movie, instead discussing how Aurelius's stoicism was perceived in a range of ancient sources. In chapter four, Eleonora Cavallini uses the film as the basis for a discussion about misrepresentations of Commodus in the historical and literary record.

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