Representing the Empire:
Fictional Parallels in Popular Entertainment between Rome and Contemporary America

originally written for "The Mutable Past" class at RISD with David Warner


"Such is the constitution of a civil society that whilst a few persons are distinguished by riches, by honours, and by knowledge, the body of the people is condemned to obscurity, ignorance, and poverty." --Edward Gibbon

"If you read Gibbon... it is like seeing the future as well as the past."[0]

            The Roman empire has served as the inspiration and motivation for almost all political and social structures in the West since its time. Its traditions are so maintained that it can be claimed that, through title, language or lineage, the Empire never died. If Rome maintained itself faintly throughout Europe, then it has maintained itself throughout the Americas, verging on Asia, far beyond the limits of its reputed limits. This claim is, of course, in line with the claims of every individual nation that has associated itself with Rome, including The U.S., who may claim the present title of Evil Empire, which is but one of the labels that histories and fictions attach to Rome. Rome is "always there" [1]. Every history has a bit of historical fiction to it, and historically set stories, revisionist or not, are more primarily about the time in which they are made than the time in which they are set. It already says something about the U.S. that the Toga Epic, or movie set in Rome, is a popular genre in American filmmaking. Movies are the entertainment of the masses and often the history lesson of the masses, sometimes obliquely commenting on one empire's history through the flexible legacy of another. Through the medium of film a message from politically motivated historical interpretations can become more politically generalized, expressing the values and expectations of the contemporary world. Such is the case of the 1961 adaptation of Howard Fast's novel Spartacus. Howard Mann's epic The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) synthesizes the fictional elements of histories including Edward Gibbon's own Decline and Fall[2], which itself made political parallels and similarly grim prophecies about the British Empire. Ridley Scott's 2000 film Gladiator, which replays Fall of the Roman Empire without the latter's Cold War context, becomes about entertainment itself, in an analogy that depends on the same portentous mechanism of historical comparison. In alluding to a narrative simplification of previous times, such popular fiction projects a narrative leading to the present day, and into the future. At the same time, any time a film is viewed the same process will occur in comparing, thematically, the time of viewing to the time of production, which in turn invoked Roman times to parallel its own. The way one analyzes a historical film as a commentary on its times is revealing of the change in political situation since that time.

            Any Marxist will tell you that the thoughts of any person at any time are dictated by their physical circumstances. The expression of ideas is even more bounded by ideology. Howard Fast wrote Spartacus following his release from prison for refusing to cooperate with The House Unamerican Activities Commitee, understandably because he was, at the time, a major member of the communist party. This does not necessarily imply a full understanding of historical materialism, but in this case the principles of it are evident in Fast's approach to the story of Spartacus. Historical circumstances condition the Servile Wars to a limited mention in Cicero's contemporary history, and are important only insofar as standards considered Crassus, the hero of Cicero's patrician history, to be fighting an honor-less war. Rather than wholly invent a story in the standard narrative format that would be used by Roman writers about a winner, Fast uses a complicated narrative style in which most of the story is told in flashbacks by the rich and depraved. These people are the subjects of history as written in their own time, but only hold slightly more sway over ideological changes than the majority of people, mostly unspoken for until Gibbon's time at least. Howard Fast tried to fit perspective to knowledge, and to the losing status of his underdog hero. The message of the story is in the comparisons to be made between those Roman times and contemporary times. The key passage here is when Crassus gives a tour of his perfume factories and Fast attempts to indicate the Servile Wars as a turning point in class struggle. Thus Fast projects onto the relatively unknown value of Spartacus his image of a communistic hero. Despite his attempts at historically accurate ideology, the novel is viewed by critic Andrew Mac Donald as a "Romantic Protest Novel set against a grimly realistic historical account of decadence and depravity." [3] Already the significance of Rome is defined by its decline, which becomes more grimly prophetic as its era in popular entertainment speeds through the timeline. Fast only reverses a history that already formed the rebellious figure of a few years past into the role of the worthy enemy into a well-known image of hopeful resistance, attempting tenuously to connect his fictional history to now in one synthetic narrative.

            Just as Fast uses a formerly relatively obscure historical figure to extend the universality of his values into the contemporary, the film Spartacus adapts his character into the model Western hero. The introduction to the movie circumvents that slave to worker equation, so politically problematic during the Cold War, to describe Spartacus as a forerunner to American slave emancipation. Spartacus's historical setting allows a message labeled as Communist during the Cold War to become patriotically Democratic by emphasizing the values professed by all political parties of the time. The time in which the story is set also warns an American audience of a potential transition (indicated by the emphasized presence of a young Julius Caesar) from Republic into dictatorship. As director Kubrick puts it, a "film taking place in another time...gives...a deeper and more objective perspective"[4]: the greater the seeming cultural difference, the more powerful the found commonality over time.

            When Fast laments the turning of people into tools, he suggests that they are now as well, and that for a ruling power to value liberty is innately hypocritical. Spartacus suggests that the U.S., with its purported value of liberty, is better than Rome. Understandably, most of the people who worked on the film were leftist, so they maintain the core of social protest. One can still easily read communism into Spartacus, but mostly only so much as Marxist values are present even in Cold War American society, possibly as extensively as in Russian. But now the connection between this myth about the Servile Wars and abolition connects it more to contemporary leftist civil rights issues, if anything. Its expression of values allows it to be attached allegorically to almost any issue in need of moral structure. Of Fast's book, MacDonald notes:"The emotional technique of identification and the intellectual one of allegory, with characters standing for clearly limited ideas, may jibe poorly with the raw events of history, which may be meaningless as recorded or may only accidentally form themselves into a neatly moral plot." [5] The film deals with Fast's difficulty in rendering accuracy while communicating a moral message by sacrificing accuracy of events (impossible, with the limited sources), and retaining superficial accuracies (not only possible but crucial for understanding cultural difference). The way in which Fast's Spartacus alludes to Jesus with his "sheeplike" face transmutes into the film's alternate history in which Kirk Douglas's Spartacus is crucified. Spartacus's seconds in command and the Jew David are supplanted by the Greek Antoninus, and one could say aspects of the now-domesticated Varinia appear in him too. It becomes hard to tell what these several perspectives have in common, but it appears that the nature of the culture has acquired the stability of myth.

            The American myth of Rome relies on a re-channeling of Britain's academic traditions looking toward Rome. Gibbon is only an ambitious and ideologically unique example of this in which the Romans are not the villains as the Christian tradition sees them. Interestingly enough, Gibbon published his History of the Decline and etc. during the American revolution; the final volume during the reestablishment of the new nation as a republic. Perhaps at the time one could already see the U.S. as a harbinger of phantom decline, at least of the British empire. The Fall of the Roman Empire uses Gibbon and more secular histories of Rome, rather than orbiting Christian concerns as does Ben Hur (1957) or really involving them, like Spartacus. The Fall of the Roman Empire takes place three hundred years after the best Roman movies, and narrates the loss of a good leader and a gradual confusion and chaos that follows. Its concerns are less with criticizing what the state does to people than what people can do to the state. Its hero is barely sympathetic and replete with Republican Roman virtues that, although still prominent in defining any hero, are far more emphasized in their political aspect. The film is long, complicated, and ricochets between costly foreign wars and internal questions of loyalty. All these aspects indicate its inevitable relevence to its release year of 1964. Before his assassination, Emperor Marcus Aurelius delivers a speech suited for the lips of Kennedy, Johnson, and Sixties progressivism, in which all nations and peoples are welcomed into the empire. "Ideal which Marcus Aurelius expresses is that of a progressive liberal of the Kennedy Era." [6] What "progressive" might really mean to those who perceive decline and fall as inevitable is one who wants to expedite decline.

            Gibbon was rather more conservative about universal citizenship, especially considering it was associated with the later, weakened emperorship of Caracella. "old men... stand for the possibility of a new Rome while a young man, Commodus, represents the old Rome of military conquest and political despotism." [7] In fact, the "New Rome" is really the old Rome of Republican times. This confusion of progressive and conservative heralds the greatness of the American Republic while at the same time prophecizing the corruptness of an American Empire. If toga epics were already "Steeped in the rhetoric of the Cold War"8, then the emphasis that Fall places on the virtues of the Roman Republic over a populace-indulging absolute dictator is typical of that ideology. The ideology remains, understandably, in the post-Cold-War meta-epic Gladiator. The eventual conquering of Germania that occurs in Aurelius's time parallels, until the tragic ending, American ideals of colonialism. The settlements of Germans begin to resemble Spartacus's slave commune. The doubt about foreign war that would be starting concerning Vietnam comes through in that same attachment to the political aspects of wars. Persia, a more recognizable alternate-histoy Parthia, is the implacable and untameable Eastern Enemy. It is to resist them that compromises are made such as the loveless marriage of Sophia Loren's heroine. "Awareness of historical precedent for a rise to world power, however, and the knowledge of the eventual fall of Rome raises the unavoidable question about the possibility or even the inevitability of the American Empire's future decline and fall." [9] The auction at the end of the movie is a generalization of the way emperors were elected after Commodus's death.

            In a way, it is more poignant to watch The Fall of the Roman Empire now than when it was made. More parallels can be drawn between the time in Roman history it depicts and our own time. The emperorship of Commodus is regarded as an example of why hereditary Emperorships can be dangerous; Marcus Aurelius was the first emperor for a century to name his blood child as successor rather than adopting some more skilled politician, and it is understandable of American movies, produced as they are in a culture that disdains monarchies, that Marcus Aurelius's reputation not be spoiled and rewriting history so that he did not actually mean to choose his son. For the past four years, Progressives have noted vices in the Conservative President similar to those attached to Commodus and those emperors who followed him: that he has no mandate, got the position through heredity and money, regards himself as too absolute a leader, replies to crisis with bombosity and overspending, goes to war with eastern countries with less than competent plans at improving their poverty, and regards the nation's people, probably rightly, as idiots to be distracted by a show of carnage.

            Thus Gladiator, a movie Ridley Scott synthesized from the powerful themes of Spartacus and The Fall of the Roman Empire, appeared in 2000 at an ideal time - or perhaps at the right time to give its audience the ideas to make the comparison just proposed. Perhaps both movies were produced at a time just before their scenarios had political relevence, just as society's distractions may always have the least possible relevence to their troubles. In Spartacus, "Pleasure in looking" at gladiators "is to become no better than a Roman." [10] This same analogy more deeply permeates Gladiator. The movie self-referentially encloses its story within an arena which is analog to the movie theater, so that the reactions of the Roman audience determine the structure of the speaking characters' political drama. The dialogue maintains a philosophy more self-conscious than The Fall's, in which the actor plays a General, a General is a Gladiator, and a Gladiator is an Actor... and an Actor is a politician. By fitting a story to a moral, the interpreter gains more power over people than he does by simply killing them. The fiction of bloodshed holds more power over the real historical movers, the populace, than actual politics and bloodshed do.

            Gladiator's title already indicates a further universalization of character. The hero Maximus derives from Fall's Livius. Marcus Aurelius's position as a father figure is changed, and rather than muck about in historical rumour like The Fall, Gladiator has Commodus kill the philosopher-emperor himself. Romantic tensions between Maximus and Lucilla are reduced by each being married, and Maximus's widowership drives the story. Most of the story continues beyond the time of Maximus's intended death, as if he is a shade or already in a dream of the afterlife, because by the end of the film it qualifies as an alternate-history on par with that perpetrated by Maximus and co. in their Punic War reenactment. Historically, Commodus's gladiator lover kills him in the bath in the conspiracy and pay of Lucilla and her senator allies; in the movie, he is killed publicly, for nobly motivated political reasons, and for the revenge of a fictional hero. Perhaps the message of both films set at this time by adding a Northern General as hero is that the history of that turning point in Roman history is lacking a hero. Unlike The Fall of the Roman Empire, rather than attempting to portray imperial decline, Gladiator focuses on an individual psychological journey heavily influenced by stoicism. Where Fall permitted a hint of the presence of Christianity in the character of the ex-slave philosopher, an enigmatic scene in which a Christian family is fed to the lions was deliberately cut from Gladiator in the belief that it made the Christians seem weak and impotent in comparison with Maximus, and made Maximus's violence detract too much from his status as hero. Another scene was deleted for suffering from too much politics and cements the connection between Commodus and George W. In it, Lucilla (Marcus's daughter, common to both Fall and Gladiator, due to actual historicity) conspires with senators to overthrow her brother and reinstate the Republic. When asked how Commodus is paying for his wars, she replies, "With the future... he's emptied the grain reserves." Contemporary America, an economy even more abstracted than the powers of later Roman Emperors, has a way to deal with these issues, which is by increasing the national debt so that future taxpayers will have to pay for the bad decisions of a President who appeases them with $300 tax returns instead of loaves of bread. Meanwhile, while there is no plague like that of Commodus's time eliminating excess people, as Mann's film and Fast's corrupt nobles put it, a large portion of the workforce will be retiring soon, leaving the next generation to pay for their medical care and the debt of messy foreign wars. Naturally, these protestations are much less convincing and subject to argument when discussed without the shielding allegory of a movie that might well be about something else.

            The comparisons are not made weaker by knowledge that they are projections onto a fiction, for I have demonstrated that political extrapolations can be made for two different times in current American history from Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire: either influenced by the time in which it was made, or the time in which it was viewed. In both times the peril of decline feels equally great, just as it did to Gibbon writing his history. The same aspect gives power to Spartacus whenever it is viewed because its socialist roots emphasize the universality of human rights. A good story quenches argumentation by communicating values more than events. Yet through the dramatization of history, political sympathies can be constructed to our political reality that allow us to understand the meaning of history. By opposition, different times become the same story, neglecting the individuality of history. And because the contemporary zeitgeist underlies a representation of history, the representation of history fictionalizes events current to its interpretation. Historical mass entertainment is the medium for a standardization of values that eliminates the difference of historical situation.



[0] Mann 332, quoted by Winkler, 142

[1]1 P. 137. Winkler, Martin M. "Cinema and the Fall of Rome".
[2] Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Abridged edition by Womersley, David. London: Penguin Books, 2000. Originally published 1776, 1781, 1788.
[3] MacDonald 98
[4] Kubrick quoted by Davis, Natalie Zemon. Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.
[5] P. 89. MacDonald, Andrew. Howard Fast: A Critical Companion. Westport: Greenwood.
[6] Winkler 145
[7] Winkler 149
[8] P. 63. Wyke, Maria. Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema, and History. New York: Routledge.
[9] Winkler 141. Winkler, Martin M. "Cinema and the Fall of Rome".
[10] Wyke 70

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