Roman Empire Movies That Get The Thumbs Up

Tunisian Amphitheatre
Tunisian Amphitheatre | © Dennis Jarvis/Flickr
Ciaran Lawler

The story of the Roman Empire’s rise and fall has has gripped the popular imagination. Most films made about the Romans lack historical accuracy, but they more than make up for it in pure entertainment value. Here’s eight of them that we’d never throw to the lions.

Ben-Hur (1959)

A perennial Easter-time favourite, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur won 11 Oscars, a feat matched only by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Its reputation may have diminished since 1959, but the hair-raising chariot race sequence remains one of Hollywood’s greatest technical achievements. Miklós Rózsa’s delightfully bombastic score also stands the test of time. Never mind the lack of substance, this is an immense and broadly entertaining spectacle.

Spartacus (1960)

Stanley Kubrick’s epic plays very loose with the facts when recounting the events of the Third Servile War and the life of the rebel leader Spartacus. Nevertheless, the film is tremendously entertaining in its depiction of gladiatorial bouts, large scale battles, and political intrigue, as well as the grisly fate of the rebels. The famous “I am Spartacus” scene has been parodied innumerable times, a reminder that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Unable to control every aspect or the production, Kubrick disowned the film. Subsequently, the autocratic auteur exercised absolute control over the rest of his films, in much the same manner as a Roman emperor might have done.

Asterix and Cleopatra (1968)

This animated adaptation of the adventures of the Franco-Belgian comic character boasts noticeably higher production standards than 1967’s Asterix the Gaul. Overseen by the comic’s creators Goscinny and Uderzo, it send Asterix and his lovable sidekick Obelix to Ancient Egypt to help Queen Cleopatra’s architect construct an immense palace for Julius Caesar in three months. Multiple musical numbers and wacky escapades ensue. The movie is only slightly less historically accurate than the other films on this list.

Fellini Satyricon (1969)

Eschewing a conventional narrative structure in favour of something much more free-form, director Federico Fellini’s colorful interpretation of the satirical writings of the courtier Petronius is a veritable sensory overload. It follows various characters engaging in all manner of bizarre and grotesque exploits throughout the Roman Empire during the reign of Emperor Nero. Not a film for the faint of heart, or for somebody looking for a straightforward adventure set in ancient Rome, Satyricon presents a series of phantasmagoric images and leaves it up to the viewer to interpret them.

Caligula (1979)

One of the most notorious films ever made, Caligula exposed its starsMalcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, and John Gielgud to a festival of insanity and depravity. Focusing on the rise and fall of the mad emperor Caligula, it depicts, on an operatic scale, a world of untrammelled decadence and sexual deviancy. Gore Vidal’s screenplay was altered considerably and scenes of unsimulated sexual activity were inserted at the request of producer Bob Guccione without the consent of director Tinto Brass or the cast. These scenes cheapened the film’s value in many observers’ eyes, and subsequent re-edits have removed them. Regardless of which version you see, Caligula is not a film you’ll forget.

Titus (1999)

This Italian-American-British co-production stars Anthony Hopkins as Titus Andronicus in the first theatrical adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The play is often considered the Bard’s worst, though some scholars doubt that he wrote it. During the chaotic latter period of the Roman Empire, army general Titus returns home from fighting the Goths, only to be plunged into further violent turmoil. The cast of director Julie Taymor’s stylized movie is uniformly excellent. Deliberate anachronisms enhance the otherworldly mood.

Gladiator (2000)

A modern classic helmed by Ridley Scott, Gladiator sees the very angry General Maximus (Russell Crowe) embark on a quest to avenge his murdered wife and son in spectacularly violent fashion. The gladiatorial combat is thrilling to behold, and the hero’s quest for bloody vengeance against the corrupt Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is genuinely involving. Oliver Reed died during production, causing script rewrites and the merging of computer-generated images of Reed’s face with body doubles in some scenes. Crowe took the Best Actor Oscar for his performance; the film also won the Oscars for Best Picture, Costumes, Sound, and Visual Effects.

Russell Crowe in ‘Gladiator’

Centurion (2010)

Here we have a violent, frenetic, and action-packed extravaganza set in the Scottish Highlands in the second century AD. A group of Roman soldiers (led by Michael Fassbender before he became really famous) must fight for their lives as they are relentlessly pursued by a confederation of northern Scottish tribes known as the Picts. The film is based on a semi-legendary historical event – the massacre of the Ninth Legion in Caledonia – which was also the focus of the abysmal 2011 film The Eagle. Centurion was not widely seen by the public and has since become a cult classic. The small scale and gritty nature of the action distinguishes it from more lavish films about the Roman Empire.
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