HUI 216 - Unit 7, Topics 1-6
"There was once a dream that was Rome"

Andrea Fedi

7.1 Historical movies

[Notes] —This section is based in part on James Hay, Popular Film Culture in Fascist Italy (1987).
A number of historical movies were produced in Italy during the 1920s and 1930s.

Some of the most interesting examples of the historical genre, so popular then, were movies based on Roman history.
It is not by chance that some of those movies were produced with the financial support of the Italian government.

Benito Mussolini

[Notes] — Even when Italy's Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini appeared in the newsreels, his public persona was similar to a cinematic character: the decisive warrior/leader typical of historical movies.
Fascist propaganda revived the idea, already introduced in Italian culture/society at the time of unification, that the newly formed Italian nation was called to a mission of civilization: to renew the glory of ancient Rome, and to replicate the political leadership and the military conquests of the Romans.


[Notes] — References to Roman civilization became very common in Fascist Italy, inside the arts, architecture, and most prominently in the language of politics.
The word fascismo derives from the fasces, "a bundle of rods bound together around an ax with the blade projecting, carried before ancient Roman magistrates as an emblem of authority. [Latin, pl. of fascis, bundle.]" (The American Heritage Dictionary).
The self-imposed title of Mussolini, "Duce," derives from the Latin Dux [=leader]. Of Latin origin were also many of the words used to designate various fascist paramilitary units and their rankings: milizia, legione, centurione, etc.
Look at a slideshow on Roman civilization in Fascist Italy.

Fascist neoclassicism

[Notes] — Look at the House of the Fascist party at Pomezia (Rome).
Consider the Project for the House of the Fascist party of Signa (Florence).
Look at recent pictures of the House of the Fascist party of Signa, anc ompare it to
period pictures of the House of the Fascist party of Signa.
Observe people in Roman costumes in front of the House of the Fascist party of Signa.
Another example of neoclassical architecture from the Fascist era: Victory bridge in Prato (1932).

Fascist symbols

[Notes] — Fascist insignia at the train station of Milan (1931).
Fasces on the ballot for the election of the members of the Parliament (1934).
Fascist manhole (Rome).
Project for the Palace of the Littorio, in the shape of a Roman ship (1934).
Fascist architecture at the EUR (Rome, 1938-1943) (see also this website.
The Foro Italico, originally called Foro Mussolini (Rome, 1928-1938)
The Stadio dei Marmi (Rome; see also this short video

7.2 Scipione l'Africano

[Notes] — Relatively few historical films about the ancient world were produced during the 1930s.
One in particular received substantial public attention, having been the subject of one of the most extensive promotional campaign in the Italian film industry during the 1930s.
Scipione l'Africano (Scipio Africanus: The Defeat of Hannibal), directed by Carmine Gallone, released in 1937: the story Scipio Africanus's victory, which brought the Second Punic War to an end.
Italy's government helped procure astronomical investment capital for Scipione: 12.6 million liras, the most ever spent on an Italian film before World War II.

Mussolini, the Army

[Notes] — Mussolini himself took great pride in the film before its release, once visiting the set, where he was hailed with chants of "Duce, Duce" by a costumed cast of thousands (many of whom had been recruited for the Ethiopian campaign).
In the original 1937 version references to the Italian military are included in the initial credits, which mentioned the name and rank of the officer who worked as a consultant, and also the use of soldiers from the Italian army as extras.

Fascism and the Romans

[Notes] — Despite much unfavorable aesthetic criticism, critics and children alike seem to have recognized the movie's cultural importance.
In a 1939 highly publicized special issue, Bianco e nero published interviews with elementary-age school children about the film.
One young student explained that "The film illustrates the valor with which the ancient Romans fought and the courage that they exhibited. Now our Duce has reeducated the Italian people about the love of country and about the spirit of sacrifice, about order and discipline, restoring to Italy a new international prestige and reviving the Roman Empire"

Scipione and Mussolini

[Notes] — There are few overt connections between the hero of the film, Scipione, and Mussolini.
Nevertheless it is difficult to ignore the similarity between the movie's protagonist and the image that Mussolini held in the minds of the Italian public.
As one of the children interviewed for Bianco e nero attests, "When you see the battlefield at Zama and a soldier says, 'Troops, we have conquered Canne!' I thought about our Duce who said, 'Let's conquer Adua!' And a few months later he said, 'We've conquered Adua!' When Scipione talked to his soldiers before the battle, I remembered the Duce. In the movie house we always applauded Scipione and his men. I want to see the film again."

The glory of Italy

[Notes] — In the film's epilogue, Scipione returns to his country estate, where he is transformed again into a family man, surrounded by his wife and children.
His conquest and return invest the Roman Empire with a new vitality, and in the final scene Scipione stands with a shaft of wheat (a symbol of fertility), proclaiming "Good grain; and tomorrow, with the help of the gods, the seed will begin."

Classical heroes

[Notes] — Mussolini's appearances in early Italian newsreels and documentaries (and his public personality in general) conjure a pedigree of acrobats and "strongmen" from 1920s Italian films: Ajax, Samson, and above all, Maciste (often described in his films as "the good giant")
Like the heroes of popular literary romances, these strongmen appeared in different films as basically the same personality: e.g., Maciste in Hell, Maciste on Vacation, Maciste Against Death, Maciste in Love, etc.
Bartolomeo Pagano was the first actor to play Maciste in Cabiria (dir. Giovanni Pastrone, 1914; more details can be found inside the article from the Italian Wikipedia): you can watch a scene on YouTube.

Mussolini movie hero

[Notes] — Like the strongmen from the 1920s, Mussolini was part of an ongoing serial of movie appearances to which were attached such epitaphs as Mussolini-aviator, Mussolini the thresher, Mussolini-athlete, etc.
In "Il Duce trebbia il grano nell'Agro Pontino" ("The Duce Threshes Wheat in the Pontine Fields," 1938) Mussolini appears bare-chested (itself a sign of a persona), inspiring his in-film audience of peasant workers with his prodigious display of strength and endurance, and demonstrating the "progress" of efforts to revitalize what was once a marshland.

Farmer, Warrior

[Notes] — The narrating voice of the newsreel explains: "The Duce threshes without even the slightest signs of tiring.... It seems that work gives him greater vigor."
It is this documentary that, as a number of Italian film historians have noted, aligns his role here with that of Scipio at the end of Scipione l'Africano.
One of Mussolini's most common personae in the newsreels and documentaries was the warrior: during the late 1920s and the 1930s, Mussolini appears in a variety of military uniforms.

The leader

[Notes] — It is no coincidence that Mussolini consciously associated himself with other warriors from Italian films of the mid-1930s, visiting the set of Scipione and lauding the spirit of Trenker's Condottieri.
It is also easy to associate the dramatic pauses and the emphatic intonation of Annibale Ninchi, the actor who plays the part of the protagonist in Scipio, with style of Mussolini's speeches.
See for example The declaration of war (1940).
Or his Speech at Aprilia, on Oct. 28, 1937 (this video also includes images of Mussolini plowing the perimeter of the new city).
Or his Speech at Carbonia, on Dec. 18, 1939 (which includes a reference to the donation of wedding rings to the motherland).

7.3 Synopsis of Scipio

[Notes] — This incomplete synopsis of the movie is based in part on the notes compiled by student Regina Marcazzò-Skarka.
Scipio begins with a text which scrolls on top of the same classical low relief, with scenes of battles, that was used as a background for the initial credits.
The introductory text, all in capital letters, read emphatically, with a dramatic voice, offers a historical introduction, which is also ideologically charged, presenting the war between the Romans and the Carthaginians as a fight between two civilizations built on opposite values.
"Toward the end of the third century, two great powers were struggling for mastery of the Mediterranean: Rome and Carthage. From the very beginning, the rivalry between the two nations became a dramatic life-and-death battle for both peoples concerned. For decades the two hostile powers fought each other without mercy, in a long series of inconclusive battles, until at last it seemed that Carthage would win the final victory."
"In fact, in the year 218 B.C., Hannibal invaded the Italian Peninsula from the Alps, with a vast army of men and elephants, leaving behind him a trail of death and destruction. In vain Rome attempted to resist his unrelenting advance. One by one, Rome's finest armies were destroyed in the battles of Ticinus, Trebbia, and the lake of Trasimene."
"The road to Rome lay open before Hannibal, and he settled in Italy as if he already owned it. Making one last desperate effort, Rome assembled another Army. But on the second of August in the year 216 B.C., fifty thousand Roman soldiers were massacred on the plane of Cannae."

From Cannae to the Forum

[Notes] — The first scene shows the battlefield of Cannae, the dusty grounds filled with the bodies of dead Roman soldiers: while a Roman standard, lying on top of the dead, is raised high into the sky, with the clouds as a backdrop, a voice from outside calls for revenge.
The next scene is shot outside, among the imposing buildings of the Roman forum.
After showing the people who have gathered in the place, curious anxious about the future, the camera focuses on Cato and a few other members of the Roman Senate.
They talk about general Scipio, and how he plans to bring the war to Africa: the senators are skeptical, and clearly show their disdain for him and for his intention to obtain the support of the people, bypassing what they consider the proper legal and political procedures.
The rigid postures, the frowning expressions and the controlled gestures of the Senators provide the visual evidence of their heartlessness: the formalities of parliamentary democracy are associated with the coldness and the selfish ambition of bourgeois members of the upper classes, and will be contrasted with the real leadership of those like Scipio, who are able to excite the natural inclination to be good and do good of the Roman people.

The people

[Notes] — From the serious faces of the Senators we move to the serene concentration of average people going about their business in the open-air market of downtown Rome.
Many are calmly looking at the products, while a small group gathers around somebody who tells the exciting news of the growing number of volunteers who are ready to take the arms and take the initiative to fight off the Carthaginians.
The attention of the crowd in the street is captured for a moment by the pitch of a snake-oil salesman, until somebody teases him by asking whether his miraculous ointment is good enough to fight Hannibal.
Then everybody turns, with cheerful faces and with arms raised in the Roman salute, when Scipione appears and walks through an arch and comes down a staircase with the crowds making room for him: the procession lasts about a minute with dramatic music and the enthusiastic voices of the people expressing their affection for this leader.

The Senate

[Notes] — One veteran of the Roman army tries desperately to get through the crowd to get a glimpse of Scipio, saying, "I followed him through the war in Spain, at the very least I should get to look at him."
Then there's a dramatic scene with Scipio trying to convince the Senate to fight Hannibal in Africa: he tells them that Rome has to be free of him for once and for all, and that the only way to accomplish the victory would be to bring the Roman army to Africa.
Someone expresses a concern that if the army goes to Africa to fight, there will be no one left to protect Rome.
If the senators don't agree with Scipio, will he take it to the people? Scipio responds that he will do whatever he has to for Italy: there is a lot of arguing, eventually many are yelling "To Carthage! To Carthage!".
Scipio walks out surrounded by soldiers holding fasces and to cheers of thousands yelling "Scipio! Scipio!": there's a long scene with crowds of thousands moving towards him, with their hands raised as if he were a God, and the music in the background is celebratory and emphatic.

Scipio vs. Hannibal

[Notes] — Then there's a scene with Scipio with his beautiful wife and a baby, then a young boy. It's a scene of the perfect loving family: Scipio is dressed aristocratically and looking ready for battle, while his son puts on a military helmet, trying to look like his dad.
Next there's a scene with Hannibal and his soldiers looking simple, low class and gruff.
The Carthaginian soldiers try to leave their camp and are punished after they have been tricked by their general to put down their weapons; someone tells Hannibal about Scipio's plans.

War and the future

[Notes] — In the next scene the Carthaginian soldiers attack a peaceful village, grabbing women and terrorizing them, ripping their clothing and groping at their breasts: a little boy sits crying by a large column.
Next there is Scipio talking to his soldiers, and when the soldiers come by another village marching, shepherds and peasants come out ecstatic, eager to see the army.
Fasces are held high and people walk forward in slow motion looking proud and hopeful: when Scipio speaks of a real "patria" asking who will follow, scores run forward trying to grab hold of the standard from Cannae.
A woman is brought to Hannibal: she tells him how she heard he wanted children and she tells him she's not afraid. He grabs her and starts kissing her then the scene abruptly changes to the Romans boarding the ships to go to Africa: there's a wonderful send off with right hands raised and music.
There are a number of scenes with meetings of both the Romans and Carthaginians. There's also a jovial scene of Roman soldiers singing and cooking outside. There's a scene with Scipio, then Hannibal talking to their own about strategy.
Scipio and Hannibal meet on horseback but peace is not the choice of Scipio: he chooses to fight. He turns down Hannibal's proposal for peace and tells him to prepare for war, then scores of Roman standards are raised with dramatic music.
The start of the battle is very dramatic with trumpets blown, Hannibal's troops on foot, elephants trumpeting, and Scipio sitting regally on his horse.
The Romans shoot at the elephants and blood is squirting out: it gets very chaotic, the elephants are running around the battlefield, and the soldiers are falling in dramatic sequences.
A soldier is shown being carried in an elephant's trunk. An elephant gets shot in the leg and falls to the ground dropping the soldier on its back. There is screaming.
The Roman horsemen are told to advance. "Vittoria avanti" is the command, "Italia avanti!" (= Move forward, Victory; Italy, forward). All of the different units move forward at a high rate of speed. They meet with strong opposition and they fight from their horses, wounding their opponents with swords.
"Chi vince?" the townspeople ask (who is winning?). One says Roman soldiers, seemingly surprised. A woman dramatically lifts a soldier's head and says who's winning, but the soldier is dead.

The conclusion

[Notes] — The battle continues with some soldiers on horseback and others on foot. The Romans look graceful and almost elegant, while the Carthaginians look gruff and clumsy.
In an intense battle on the ground, a Roman soldier holds the standard high with great determination.
After victory, Scipio is seen with classical Roman architecture in the background gracefully embracing his loved ones and the film ends.
He says, "Good grain, and tomorrow with the help of the gods the seed will begin."

7.4 Italy in Scipio

[Notes] — The movie Scipione l'Africano cares to inform the viewer from the very beginning that the movie was filmed with the participation of soldiers from the Italian army, and that it was produced in Rome.
In the written scroll that sets the story before the opening scene, the fight between Rome and Carthage is characterized as a war between two nations ("nazioni"), two peoples ("popoli"), i.e. two civilizations, not just two states or two military powers.
From the very beginning the connections to Italy are multiplied, even exaggerated: all the actors speak the Italian language, in fact in the opening scenes there are hints of different dialects (from the North, the center and the South of Italy!) in the pronunciation of various secondary characters from the street.

Italians in Scipio

[Notes] — One of the men on the street discusses Rome's politics and the deeds of general Scipio, and says that he comes from Arezzo, using the Italian modern name of the city instead of its Latin name "Aretium."
He also remarks that in his city they are preparing for the imminent fight, while in Rome all they do is talk.
Before the scene is over we also learn that volunteers in other parts of Italy are getting ready to defend Rome.
Clearly the fate of Rome is a major concern for all Italians, an exaggeration, historically inaccurate, but one which shows how the cultural connection with ancient Rome was played out in Italy in the first half of the 20th-century.

Italy past and present

[Notes] — The word "Italy" is heard in many scenes of this movie, while it is hardly ever mentioned in Spartacus, and never once mentioned in Gladiator (if I'm correct).
The continuity between the past and the present is insured also by references to the war fought by the Romans in Spain (at a time when Italian Fascists had been volunteering to fight in the Spanish Civil War alongside General Franco's army), and to the conquest of Africa (when Italy had just conquered Ethiopia, in 1935-36).
Numerous scenes have crowds saluting general Scipio with their right hand lifted straight in front of them, a detail that, while being historically accurate, is clearly reminiscent of the salute reintroduced in Italian society by the fascist regime.

The people in Scipio

[Notes] — The gatherings of large mobs in Rome must have reminded the viewers of the gatherings of similar mobs to hear and honor Mussolini or the heroes of the Italian army, the veterans of the various military campaigns of the 1930s.
The Roman soldiers in the movie make reference to the fact that they are farmers and shepherds by trade, occupations still very common throughout Italy during the 1930s.
In this movie Rome represents the whole of Italy and its common interests, rather than the interests of the Roman citizens and of the Senate.
In fact it is evident that even the people from the lower classes are following very carefully the discussions that take place in the Roman Senate, and instinctively evaluate all political decisions and their consequences.

Italy, Italy...

[Notes] — When Scipio is organizing an expeditionary force to invade Africa and bring the war closer to Carthage, the Roman soldiers are shown marching at the rhythm of a quasi-operatic song with the following refrain: "Chi ha chiamato? Scipione, Scipione... Chi ha risposto? L'Italia, l'Italia..." (= Who called? Scipio, Scipio... Who answered that call? Italy, Italy...).
While "Romani" (Romans) is the term used more often to indicate the soldiers, at times we also hear the term "Italici" (Italics), a word commonly used to designate the peoples living in Italy in the pre-modern era, but also a term that would have been used properly only at the end of the Roman republic, or at the beginning of the empire, when a real sense of unity inside the Italian peninsula first developed, backed by the full support of the government and by numerous efforts in literature and the arts.
Rome and Italy are closely associated inside the speech given by Scipio before he leaves Italy to go fight in Africa.
Even Hannibal at one point says "La mia patria è l'Italia" (= Italy is my homeland), a remark which seems almost paradoxical, but is then clarified by the character's statement that Italy is the only land able to excite strong passions and exciting feelings.
Living in Italy for 15 years to fight the war against the Romans, even he, Hannibal, has grown attached to that land.
He therefore exhibits a strange nostalgia, before leaving Italy to go back to Africa to defend Carthage, which he finds an ungrateful and unsupportive fatherland, certainly not the kind of country that one would be eager to live or die for.

7.5 Spartacus

[Notes] — Spartacus is a movie based on a 1951 novel by Howard Fast. Read what he had to say in a 2000 interview:
"I was imprisoned for contempt of Congress for refusing to 'name names' to the House Un-American Affairs Committee.
This set me to thinking a great deal about prison, and when I was released, I began a very intense study of ancient slavery and imprisonment, particularly with a set of books (rare books today) called 'The Ancient Lowly' [Cyrenus Osborne Ward, 1888, 2 vols.].
In these books, extensive information on the Spartacus revolt was available."

Movie synopsis

[Notes] —The following synopsis of the movie Spartacus (1960; dir. Stanley Kubrick) is based in part on notes compiled by former student John Barodin.
The movie Spartacus tells the story of a slave revolt led by the title character.
Spartacus is a slave in a Thracian camp where he is bought by Batiatus, who runs a gladiatorial school.
At the school, the men are taught how to fight but do not fight to the death, as this would be bad for morale.
For good behavior, the gladiators are permitted the company of women: Spartacus is assigned a Britton, named Varinia, whom he treats with great respect: as a result, a relationship forms between the two, as they soon fall in love.
When Roman senator Crassus visits the school with his wife and another couple, the two women demand to see the gladiators fight to the death.
Although Spartacus is defeated in the fight, his opponent refuses to kill him and instead hurls a spear in Crassus's direction: for his behavior he is immediately killed.

The revolt

[Notes] — While at the school, Crassus buys Varinia from Batiatus, and, when Spartacus finds out, he is outraged and starts an uprising by the gladiators who eventually overrun the school.
With Spartacus as their leader, the escaped gladiators travel through southern Italy freeing other slaves, who join their ranks.
Their plan is to leave Italy and return home with the help of pirate ships.
It is while traveling through Italy that Spartacus reunites with Varinia, who also escaped.
The two marry and Varinia is soon pregnant.

Glabrus, Crassus

[Notes] — The Roman Senate dispatches a small Roman army, led by Crassus's protege Glabrus, to deal with Spartacus.
However, Spartacus gets word of this, attacks the Romans while they are sleeping and destroys the Roman force.
Glabrus is freed to return to the senate, where he is forced to admit his incompetence in handling his forces.
As a result, he is banished from Rome by Crassus, his former political ally.


[Notes] — Crassus, seeking to increase his political power by destroying Spartacus, convinces the senate to deploy a much larger army to deal with the rebel slaves.
However, this army is also defeated, this time with more than 19,000 casualties.
The senate, humiliated by the inability of the Roman military to defeat the slaves, deploys more units, this time under the command of Crassus himself.
This army leaves from Rome, while two more armies are advancing from the south, to surround Spartacus.


[Notes] — Seeing that he is trapped, Spartacus wills his troops north and into battle against the army led by Crassus: this time the slaves are defeated, and he is captured along with Varinia and their newborn son.
Crassus, determined to find Spartacus, threatens the captured gladiators announcing that if Spartacus does not reveal himself, all the prisoners will be executed.
As Spartacus is about to reveal his identity, hundreds of other slaves come forward yelling, "I am Spartacus!".


[Notes] — With Spartacus' identity still hidden, Crassus orders that 6,000 captured slaves be crucified along the road to Rome.
On his way back to Rome, Crassus recognizes Spartacus from the fight at the gladiatorial school and spares him so that he can entertain Crassus by fighting to the death in Rome.
Spartacus wins the fight but is the last slave to be crucified and is nailed up to a cross just outside the gates to Rome.
In the end, thanks to Crassus's political adversary Gracchus and to a remorseful Batiatus, Varinia achieves her freedom.
While leaving Rome for Gaul, she sees Spartacus nailed up on a cross just outside the gates of the city.
She brings her newborn son to the dying gladiator, and for the first time Spartacus sees his son.
She pleads with him to die and end his suffering, which he does as she rides off as a free woman.

Hollywood's Rome

[Notes] — A peculiar feature of big historical movies produced in Hollywood and dedicated to crucial events in the history of Rome is how little they appear to be connected to Italy, how much they seem to emphasize the disconnect between Roman history and Italian history.
In the case of Spartacus, for example, the only direct reference to Italy in the entire movie seems to be the map of the Italian peninsula shown on the background during the scenes shot in Spartacus's tent, while his army of slaves is waiting for the Pirates to put together enough ships to take them out of Italy.
With the exception of Rome, the few names of Italian cities that are quoted in the movie ("Brindisi," for example) are quoted in their Latin form (Brundisium, etc.): this is a justifiable decision, which favors historical accuracy (although, one wonders why it is not applied to the city of Rome itself), yet interestingly very different from the choice of a significant Italian counterpart such as Scipione l'Africano.
Even the places, the steep mountains and the open plains practically bare of any vegetation, add to the movie a generic impression of imperial grandeur, a sense of greatness commonly associated with the modern representation of an empire (including Star Wars).
The movie Spartacus was shot in Spain, with the participation of soldiers from the Spanish army, at that time under the supreme command of fascist dictator Francisco Franco.
During the movie, scenes shot in a natural setting alternate with others shot inside the residences of Roman senators in the city of Rome, characterized by generic interiors, where the idea of Roman civilization is conveyed mostly by an abundance of marble and, once again, by the size of every hall and room.

Roman society

[Notes] — Not a single relevant scene is shot in the streets of Rome.
The Roman empire here is not fully represented in its tridimensional historical reality: it is transformed into an abstract political entity, contemplated from a very narrow point of view.
Even the widespread use of the term empire, instead of the technically more accurate term republic, reinforces that idea.
The Latin term imperium meant domination, or indicated the power of the government over a territory.

The Romans

[Notes] — All the Romans that we see on the screen during the movie are either members of the government (senators and soldiers), or are connected to it by a relationship of power and authority.
For ex., Peter Ustinov's character, Batiatus, provides slaves and gladiators for the entertainment of the wealthy and powerful among the Romans, yet lives in constant fear and is subject to the prevarication of those who represent the state.
Everybody else in the movie is a servant or a slave.
The average Romans from the middle classes are nowhere to be seen.

The senators

[Notes] — The senators that we see on the screen are clearly Machiavellian, constantly trying to outsmart each other with no care whatsoever for the idea of serving the state or for the common interests of Roman society.
The actors who play the part of the main senators (Lawrence Olivier is Crassus, and Charles Laughton is Gracchus) with all probability would not have been cast to act as Italians in a movie on modern-day Italy. They were chosen to play the part of Roman Senators simply because they were British, and with their proper British accent (and manners) aptly evoked the might of the most recent empire in history, the British Empire.
To construct the generic idea of empire there are also hints to the "sexual decadence" of the ancient Romans, with members of the upper classes seducing female as well as male slaves.
In a famous scene which was cut from the movie when it was first released, Lawrence Olivier is bathing, assisted by his personal slave Antoninus (Tony Curtis), and he engages in a dialogue about "snails and oysters" which is based on double entendres of a clear sexual nature.
That scene has been restored in a recently released DVD edition, and since the studios had lost the original audio tracks, Tony Curtis was called in to give voice to his character one more time, while Anthony Hopkins replaced the voice of the deceased Lawrence Olivier.
Connected to the theme of the "perversion of morals" presumed to be common in an imperial society is the behavior displayed by the two women who accompany Crassus to see the gladiators in Capua. They are constantly jiggling while they insist on having the men fight to the death for their entertainment, and without too many clothes on, allegedly to save them from the unbearable heat.

Greatness, decadence

[Notes] — "Greatness" is one of the keywords of the movie, and it is repeated in many dialogues.
From the point of view of the mighty Romans, the question is: can there be greatness in a state that has adopted slavery?
From the point of view of the movie's hero, Spartacus, the question is: can one achieve success or greatness, having been born a slave?

Values of civilization

[Notes] — It is worth considering how the movie was presented in the original trailers, now included with bonus material inside the DVD.
One says: "In the year 70 B.C. Rome, colossus of the world, faced its greatest challenge."
In another Senator Crassus (Lawrence Olivier) is presented to the audience as "the symbol of Rome's power and might."
The customary pitch describing the story in 25 words or less is the same in all trailers: "the powerful story of the gladiator rebel who sprang from slavery to challenge the awesome might of imperial Rome."
The opening titles of the movie show a series of Greco-Roman statues, mostly heads, and the last one before the opening scene falls to pieces suggesting the idea of decadence, of a civilization nearing its tragic end.

The 1st scene

[Notes] — It is important to consider how the movie is framed, from the beginning. In the very first scene of the movie, while the camera moves from a Roman soldier on top of a wooden tower-post to a line of slaves carrying rocks over the mountains of the Roman province of Thracia, we hear these words solemnly spoken: "In the last century before the birth of the new faith called Christianity, which was destined to overthrow the pagan tyranny of Rome and bring about a new society, the Roman republic stood at the very center of the civilized world."

A disease called slavery

[Notes] — "'Of all things fairest,' sang the poet, 'first among cities and home of the gods is golden Rome.' Yet, even at the Zenith of her pride and power, the republic lay fatally stricken with a disease called human slavery."
The coming of Christ and the spreading of Christian religion may certainly have been one of the cultural factors that made the difference between the Roman world and modern Italy: however, the overall moralistic approach is quite evident here.

Ethnic representation

[Notes] — In Spartacus there is a Spanish gladiator, there is an English slave (decades before the Romans actually landed an Army on the shores of England!), and the protagonist is a Thrace.
Only Italy seems the be missing from the picture, if not for the fact that Spartacus's friend Antoninus once, when interrogated, says that he is a Sicilian.
It is easy to notice that he is physically smaller and less muscular than most other characters, and in the story his special talents are indicated as singing, and the recitation of poems!

7.6 Gladiator

[Notes] —The following synopsis of the movie Gladiator (2000; dir. Ridley Scott) is based in part on notes compiled by former student John Barodin.

Gladiator details the fall of the great Roman general Maximus, who after learning that he should be succeeding Marcus Aurelius as leader of the Roman Empire, is deceived by Aurelius's son Commodus.
Although Maximus wants nothing to do with assuming the throne, he takes into consideration the offer made by Aurelius, because he is the only one who can right the wrongs of the current Empire.
From the very beginning the movie is introduced as the fight between two individuals who represent the opposite values of two different social groups.

The soldier, the Emperor

[Notes] — Commodus, outraged by the fact that his father would give the throne to someone other than him, deceives Maximus and sends him to be executed.
However, Maximus escapes and returns home to his farm (whose wheat fields appear regularly in his dreams), only to find his wife and son dead.
Distraught by this loss, Maximus flees and eventually is captured and sold into slavery, to become then a gladiator.

Maximus the gladiator

[Notes] — Fighting not for the crowd's satisfaction but for their own survival, Maximus and the other gladiators bond together and soon become the crowd's favorites.
Maximus's band of gladiators are invited to fight at the Colosseum in front of Emperor Commodus.
Commodus, impressed by the passion and skill with which Maximus fights, makes his way to the Colosseum's floor after the battle, to meet the impressive gladiator.
Commodus demands Maximus's helmet be removed to show his face, and his identity is revealed.
Commodus, who thought that his rival had been murdered long ago, is outraged to see Maximus alive and immediately schemes to have him eliminated. However, the task is more difficult than it seems, as Maximus has quickly become popular and thousands of people flock to the Colosseum to see him fight.
Commodus, jealous of the popularity of his rival, arranges for a battle between himself and Maximus, hoping to win over the crowd. However, Commodus knows he is no match for the gladiator in the arena: he wounds Maximus before the battle and conceals the wound under his armor.
The two Romans battle until Maximus, near death, defeats Commodus and fatally stabs him, not long before he too succumbs to death.

Hollywood's Rome

[Notes] — What was said before about Spartacus can be repeated for Gladiator: even in this movie the idea of the Roman Empire translates into the generic political ambitions of a small number of individuals.
There is no relevant mention of the agencies or systems that oversee the administration of a large state: on the screen are the political maneuvers of scheming senators and of Machiavellian members of the imperial family.

Sexual deviance is also emphasized, to reinforce the idea of the moral decadence of the Roman empire.
Commodus and his sister Lucilla have an incestuous relationship, which is consummated at the end of the movie.
Commodus is portrayed as a sadist in a very crude, almost grotesque way (see how Joaquin Phoenix jumps around and sticks his tongue out at the sight of blood during the gladiatorial games in the Colosseum, or how he looks at his sister's son Lucius).

The greatness of Rome

[Notes] — Central to the thematic development of this movie is the "idea," the "vision" of the idealistic "greatness of Rome," better characterized by the Shakespearean motto "there was once a dream that was Rome."
The idealist Maximus has a mission, to "give power back to the people of Rome and end the corruption that has crippled it" (in the words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, spoken to the film's good guy, Maximus).
Rome has little to do with Italian civilization, it seems, and simply serves as the pretext for a universal parable, that of a good man from the countryside fighting to insure democracy, equality, justice for all, and also to protect his family: "Is Rome worth one good man's life?" says Lucilla at the end of the movie, right before Juba, the Numidian gladiator who was a good friend of Maximus leaves Rome to go home.


[Notes] — Maximus has left his family in Spain, almost three years before the story begins, and the only noticeable reference to Italy in the movie comes out when we see his wife and child hoping to see him among those Roman soldiers that have come to kill them (the evil praetorians, properly sporting all-black uniforms): in the scene, the kid says, "Mamma, i soldati!" (=mommy, the soldiers), and then calls out "Papà!" (=daddy).
At another point in the movie, a street hawker in Rome shouts "Vino! Vino!" (= Wine! Wine!).
In the end this cinematic fiction ends up being mostly a moral tale about values often identified with the so-called American way of life, primarily individualism and self-development, and how one individual, with good morals and hard work, can make a difference in his/her life and in the lives of many others.

American values

[Notes] — The last point becomes very clear when we consider lines such as the following: "the general who became a slave, the slave who became a gladiator, the gladiator who defied an Emperor..."
Or this one: "today I saw a slave become more powerful than the Emperor of Rome" (these words are pronounced by Lucilla, Commodus's sister, after Maximus fights in the Colosseum for the first time).
Maximus replies back to her that the only power he has is "the power to amuse a mob," but Lucilla insists that "Rome is the mob" (which looks like an auto-ironic allusion to the power of the entertainment industry: to be able to entertain the masses is in itself a form of power).

The End