A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome

Course No. 8635
Professor Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
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Course No. 8635
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What Will You Learn?

  • Draw fascinating (and surprising) connections between films set in ancient Rome and science fiction films.
  • Explore two big-budget film takes on the mysterious legend of ancient Rome’s “lost legion.”
  • Dispel the myth of lively recreational drug use in ancient Rome and Egypt presented by HBO’s Rome series.

Course Overview

When most of us think of the ancient Roman world, we don’t think about the scholarship of hard-working historians or the discoveries of patient archaeologists. We think, first and foremost, of what we’ve seen at the movies.

From the sword-and-sandal epics of the 1950s to the resurgence of grittier stories in the 21st century, cinema has exerted an undeniable power over our cultural understanding of ancient Rome. The iconography is always fresh in our minds: gladiatorial battles and chariot races, defiant slaves and nefarious emperors, magnificent public structures and white toga costumes. But just because these and other sights are popular in movies doesn’t mean they should always be taken as historical fact.

What would an award-winning historian think of films like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Gladiator, or even a satire like Monty Python’s Life of Brian? How have these and other movies created our popular perceptions of ancient Roman history—and in what ways have they led us astray? And why, despite the occasional box-office flop, do movies set in ancient Rome still have the power to captivate us, and to turn each of us into theater-going history buffs?

In A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome, Professor Gregory S. Aldrete uses his prolific scholarship to give you a front-row look at the great movies that have shaped ancient Rome’s role in popular culture and memory. Packed with insights into both history and filmmaking, these 12 lectures immerse you in the glory and grandeur (and, sometimes, the folly) of classic and contemporary films featuring over 50 years of cinematic talent, including directors like Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, and Ridley Scott, and actors such as Charlton Heston, Rex Harrison, Elizabeth Taylor, Patrick Stewart, and Russell Crowe. You’ll investigate portrayals of ancient Roman life on the big screen and small screen; learn how to tease out fact from fiction in some of Hollywood’s most stunning spectacles; and deepen your appreciation for films that, when made right, are thrilling time machines into the past.

Survey Landmark Film and TV

For A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome, Professor Aldrete has assembled 13 of what he and many other film buffs consider to be the most important films set in ancient Rome. These are movies we remember for their performances, their costumes and set designs, and the ways they influenced the movies made in their wake. A few of the features you will explore include:

  • Quo Vadis: This high-profile 1951 film, starring Peter Ustinov as the tyrannical emperor Nero and Deborah Kerr as a virtuous young Christian girl, established a successful (and lucrative) template for movies about classical antiquity and the early Christian world, and sparked a cultural fire for sword-and-sandal flicks.
  • I, Claudius: Based on two novels by Robert Graves, this BBC miniseries tracks the intimate lives of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which includes the emperors Claudius, Caligula, and Tiberius. The show also captured the attention of a second group of viewers: those obsessed with England’s royal family.
  • Fellini Satyricon: Italian director Federico Fellini’s experimental film, based on the ancient novel Satyricon by Petronius, was very much a product of the cinematic and social revolutions of the 1960s—both of which left an indelible mark on this picaresque story of a pleasure-seeking young Roman man.
  • Gladiator: Essentially a remake of the 1964 film, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Ridley Scott’s blockbuster film from 2000 was a commercial and cultural triumph that snagged Academy Awards, spawned memorable catchphrases, and inspired a host of new sword-and-sandal epics in the subsequent decade, including Troy and 300.

Some films you may already be a fan of; other films you might have only heard of in passing. But all of them are essential to a well-rounded understanding of the intricate relationship between the world of ancient Rome and the world of the movies.

Walk the Line between Truth and Fiction

A scholar who’s spent his entire career immersed in the history of the ancient Roman world (from ancient body armor to everyday life), Professor Aldrete reveals the historical accuracies and inaccuracies of the ancient Roman world depicted in these films. When filmmakers seemingly got certain aspects of history wrong, Professor Aldrete provides a window into how and why the creators made certain decisions and navigated the tenuous line between truth and entertainment. For example, you’ll discover that:

  • Ben-Hur‘s naval battle, while a reasonable depiction of naval warfare in the ancient Roman world, nevertheless, depicts the oarsmen of the warships as slaves (they weren’t) and being sent to the galleys as punishment (it wasn’t);
  • Spartacus misrepresents the title character’s historical legacy by depicting his revolt as a growing movement challenging slavery, when in reality, it marked the end of popular opposition to the institution;
  • I, Claudius portrays the character of Livia as a mass murderer who kills multiple members of her own family to clear the way for her son, Tiberius—a notion that has been proven to likely be false, and can be traced to a specific ancient historian, Cassius Dio.
  • Gladiator uses the familiar “thumbs down” gesture to indicate a defeated gladiator should be killed, whereas, recent scholarship has revealed this gesture was most likely a way of calling for the victor to drop his weapon and spare his enemy;
  • HBO’s Rome gets many things right about everyday life in ancient Rome, including two characteristics of Roman religion—that it’s a component of nearly all facets of life and that individuals differ in their degrees of belief; and
  • Fellini Satyricon, despite its surreal components, depicts a marriage ceremony accurately by dressing the bride with an orange veil and having the guests throw nuts at the couple and shout “feliciter” in congratulations.

Go behind the Scenes of Cinematic Classics

Along with a revealing look at ancient history, these lectures also examine the art and craft of big-budget filmmaking. A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome takes you behind the scenes to reveal how iconic films can be made—or unmade—by everything from clashes between directors and actors to out-of-control budgets.

For example, you’ll learn how:

  • Early epics like Ben-Hur couldn’t rely on the luxury of computer-generated effects and, therefore, had to construct impressive, full-sized replicas of ancient Roman sites like the Forum or the Circus Maximus;
  • Fall of the Roman Empire was the true box-office bomb that tanked the sword-and-sandals genre for decades (not Cleopatra, as popularly believed); and
  • Creative differences between a historical consultant and the producers of Gladiator reflect the way filmmakers ditch historical accuracy for the sake of drama.

Professor Aldrete also highlights profound connections between these films and the wider historical culture in which they first appeared. Quo Vadis, for example, made only a few years after the end of World War II, noticeably portrays the Romans as mirror images of the Nazis. And Spartacus, despite its message of freedom, became the target of McCarthy-era conservative and religious groups who condemned it for being anti-American.

A Guide for Tomorrow’s Great Films

Of course, the end of this exciting lecture series doesn’t mean there isn’t more to come. Roman history continues to inspire new cinematic depictions, and A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome is a welcome guide to settings, themes, and “bread-and-circus” plots that popular culture just can’t let go of.

Professor Aldrete’s lectures leave you excited about how tomorrow’s movies will depict the ancient world—and eager to discover what those creative works will reveal about both the past and the times in which they’re made.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 32 minutes each
  • 1
    Quo Vadis Kick-Starts the Sword-and-Sandal Genre
    Few films did as much to shape the modern movie-going public’s notions of ancient Rome as Quo Vadis. Discover how this film, released in 1951 by MGM Studios, ushered in the golden age of the so-called “sword-and-sandal” picture, with its irresistible formula of evil, arrogant Romans versus virtuous, devout Christians. x
  • 2
    Ben-Hur: The Greatest Chariot Race
    Ben-Hur, from 1959, was an enormous financial risk that nevertheless became a cash machine for MGM Studios. In this lecture, unpack the intricate tensions between the Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur and the Roman aristocrat Messala, then analyze the historical accuracies (and inaccuracies) of the film's iconic naval battle and chariot race sequences. x
  • 3
    Spartacus: Kubrick's Controversial Epic
    Discover what makes Spartacus—despite being one of the best-known cinema epics of ancient Rome—something of an oddity. It’s a gladiator film with only one scene of combat. Its production was rife with conflict. Its narrative misrepresents the real-life Spartacus’s goals. And it played an important role in Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist movement. x
  • 4
    Cleopatra: Spectacle Gone Wild
    How did the 1963 film, Cleopatra, bring about the destruction of the golden age of epic films set in ancient Rome—and destroy the old Hollywood studio system? How does this film treat the historical accounts of figures like Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Octavian? Why do its grand costumes and sets still deserve admiration? x
  • 5
    The Fall of the Roman Empire and Ancient Epics
    With its $19 million price tag and its $4.75 million in returns, The Fall of the Roman Empire was an unmitigated financial disaster. From its connections to 1960s global politics to its elaborate reconstruction of the Roman Forum to its bleak ending, explore why some critics and scholars regard this as a sophisticated take on ancient Rome. x
  • 6
    I, Claudius: The BBC Makes an Anti-Epic
    Consider the 1976 BBC production of I, Claudius, which has been credited as one of the most influential and memorable portraits of the ancient world ever to appear on the screen—big or small. Set between 24 B.C. and A.D. 54, the miniseries created an intimate look at the reigns of emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. x
  • 7
    Life of Brian: The Roman World's a Funny Place
    What would a parody of sword-and-sandal films, with all their genre conventions and clichés, look like? Discover how Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a witty parody of both biblical and Roman epic films, took on gladiatorial games, ancient Roman society and religion, and the human tendency toward factionalism and tribalism. x
  • 8
    Gladiator: The Historical Epic Revived
    Why did big-budget epics of the ancient world fall out of fashion? How did the 2000 film, Gladiator, single-handedly resuscitate a genre that had been dormant for nearly 40 years? What has recent scholarship revealed about the film’s portrayals of gladiator battles and the lives of ancient Roman emperors—their truths, falsehoods, and embellishments? x
  • 9
    Rome: HBO's Gritty Take on Ancient History
    To get a sense of what living in ancient Rome was really like for the average person, the best place to look is the HBO miniseries, Rome. Learn how, despite its flaws, this short-lived series offers accurate (if gritty) views of different religious beliefs, the role of slavery in ancient Roman society, and more. x
  • 10
    Centurion and The Eagle: The Legions in Britain
    Explore two films that take on the legendary story of an ancient Roman legion lost in the mists of Britain. Both Centurion and The Eagle, while not as well-known as some of the other films featured in this course, nevertheless, offer solid insights into Roman military tactics and raise central issues about Roman imperialism. x
  • 11
    Scipione l'africano and Fellini Satyricon
    While both were Italian productions, Scipione l’africano and Fellini Satyricon couldn’t be more dissimilar in style. Examine how these two films—one a pompous work of propaganda from 1937, the other a subversive piece of overindulgence from 1969—are best seen as products of the eras in which they were made. x
  • 12
    Bread and Circuses in Sci-Fi Films
    The Hunger Games, The Matrix, The Running Man, Rollerball, Ready Player One—each of these wildly different sci-fi films derive their premise from a line of poetry by the ancient Roman satirist Juvenal. How has a simple motif about “bread and circuses” powered some of the most memorable sci-fi plots in cinema? x

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Your professor

Gregory S. Aldrete

About Your Professor

Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
Dr. Gregory S. Aldrete is Professor of Humanistic Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, where he has taught since 1995. He earned his B.A. from Princeton University and his master's degree and Ph.D. in Ancient History from the University of Michigan. Honored many times over for his research and his teaching, Professor Aldrete was named by his university as the winner of its highest awards in each...
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A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome is rated 3.8 out of 5 by 21.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Wish there were some more movie clips or stills The lecturer and the lectures are good. I just wish they were able to more stills or clips from the movies to illustrate. I realize that with licensing it would make the lectures too expensive, but the heart wants what the heart wants.
Date published: 2020-02-03
Rated 2 out of 5 by from No Film Clips I have purchased two of Professor Aldrete's courses before and thoroughly enjoyed them. But on this course I was terribly disappointed. I was looking forward to viewing some clips of some old films. There were no film clips. Even the few still photographs were of questionable value and quality. What a waste of "video" capability. The lectures became movie reviews with a little info on each film's matching correct historical content. A lot of time was spent on word pictures because the video aspect was missing. Your money would be better spent on renting the old films.
Date published: 2020-01-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fun course I found the courses to be fun. Not a lot of depth, but, its mostly about the movies, not history. More movie stills would have been nice, but perhaps the studios did not want to cooperate.
Date published: 2020-01-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Takes me back. Full disclosure: I haven’t listened to all the lectures, but I have a feeling the first lecture reflects my major regret with this course, and will probably be seen in future lectures of the course. The first lecture focused on the film QUO VADIS. The professor was very knowledgeable about this period of Roman history and about the film itself. After hearing the lecture, however, it dawned on me that there were very few scenes—if any—from the film itself. Maybe a few stills, but that was about it. Most of the films included in the course are powerful visual treatments of the Roman era; it would be nice if the professor's words were accompanied by more scenes and stills from the film. It also occurred to me at the same time that obtaining the rights to include music, scenes, etc from the various films would have been very costly indeed. There are a number of movie books out there where one could learn quite a bit about the films included in the course. But if you prefer your Hollywood Roman history via the spoken word, in a more academic setting, and with some visuals to spice things up, this course and this professor are for you.
Date published: 2020-01-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from excellent program! This is a great course. The professor really knew his history and related it to movies that were set in ancient Rome. He talked about how each film was or was not accurate. However, in his final conclusions he discussed concepts from these films and how they related to more modern films.. like the matrix, the hunger games. I enjoyed this course so much that I "binge" watched it over two days! It impressed me that the professor seemed to really enjoy his subject and passing his knowledge on to others.
Date published: 2020-01-25
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Bread, circuses and movies I have mixed feelings about this course, although I admire professor Aldrete as historian and teacher, I feel a little bit disappointed about the content of this course, perhaps for the lack of scenes of the movies that were discussed (I have not seen at least a half of them). Of course, I understand the issue of copyrights for showing scenes. Anyway, that makes difficult to follow the course.
Date published: 2020-01-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Aldrete Does It Again! I enjoyed all of his courses, so far, from both the Rise of Rome and the Fall of the Empire (2 courses) and Great Battles and Military Blunders (2 more courses). He skillfully combines both his verbal and non verbal public speaking delivery skill sets with his broad based and detailed acumen of ancient Rome's long history to articulate an informative, persuasive and entertaining series of lectures. This Great Course should increase your acumen and appreciation for Ancient Rome's contribution to our shared western culture. However, while his lectures on Ben Hur and Spartacus are probably the most familiar topics and while they will both probably increase your knowledge and awareness of how the movie industry intersects history with our contemporary culture, you will learn how figures like Hitler and Mussolini misinterpreted and exploited history's lessons to indoctrinate their own respective cultures with misinformation and negatively biased political agendas bent on their own eventual self destruction. Professor Aldrete closes this all too brief series by demonstrating how the Roman means of self promotion and indoctrination such as "bread and circuses" has found it's way into 20th century dystopian successful films like The Hunger Games and Matrix. In this way we can hear how history's lessons like history itself is repeated until will can collective learn what it can teach us to be better than we believe we already are.
Date published: 2020-01-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Very Fun Course For History And Movie Buffs Some Great Courses offerings are more “scholarly” than others, which is a good thing. This is the kind of course you’ll want to listen to mostly for fun - there is certainly historical material presented here, and the movies themselves reflect the times, but I would describe these classes as much for entertainment as for the academic content. Professor Aldrete is a very good and enthusiastic lecturer - and his enthusiasm is contagious. He loves not only the underlying history, but also the movies themselves, whether good or bad. The basic method he uses goes over various facets of the movie, whether the making of the movie itself, the sources from which it was made, the director’s vision in light of the political times (the 1950s, 1960s A.D. as well as the 44 B.C.’s etc.). He does spend some time explaining anachronisms in the various films. I think he has to, but of course these are movies, not documentaries, so I tend not to watch them for educational purposes, but that certainly does not detract from the overall presentation. The course could likely be improved with some video clips, but I understand that likely for copyright reasons they probably cannot show them. Prof. Aldrete does a very good job of explaining them, however, and frankly you’ve probably already seen many and possibly even most of the movies and shows discussed. I had, but actually ended up finding one of the films I hadn’t already seen to watch it separately. I’ll likely re-watch others over the coming months. This is a unique course in that it’s really about two histories - what happened in Ancient Rome and how those in the mid-20th to early 21st century envisioned that history in light of the political and social happenings of their own times. On top of it, it really is a lot of fun.
Date published: 2020-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Finished it in record time I really enjoyed this course. My only negative is that I wished the course could have actually shown pictures/movie clips from the movies being discussed. I assume it was not done due to copyright protection. I am now going through Professor Aldrete's course on Rome. He is a good teacher.
Date published: 2020-01-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Entertaining and informative Highly recommended for film and ancient history buffs! I watched this course over a period of a week and a half and really enjoyed it. The instructor is a lively presenter and did a good job of showing the cinematic evolution of these sword and sandal movies over time. I was familiar with most of the films and caught up on the few that I had not seen via Net Flix and my public library. Important: It really helps to know the film to get full value from this course. really since you will not be seeing clips of the subject films.
Date published: 2020-01-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A delightful coda to his Roman history courses After finishing Professor Aldrete's excellent two course series on Roman history I wondered what he would do next. Ancient Greece perhaps? That's a topic due for another look by TGC. Instead, I was delighted to discover he did something entirely different, a look at how Rome has been treated on film and TV. And so I immediately purchased and devoured the course, something I have done with all Aldrete's previous courses. Along with John McWhorter and Dorsey Armstrong I purchase everything Gregory Aldrete produces sight unseen. He's that good. The course actually begins in the 1950's with Quo Vadis, so those hoping for a look at silent movies depicting the era might be disappointed. It then follows the enormous growth in popularity of the genre with Ben Hur and Spartacus, followed by the sharp decline with the twin disasters of Cleopatra and Fall of the Roman Empire. Cleopatra is notorious but I had no idea how important Fall was in the collapse of the genre. I won't spoil the rest of the course so you'll have to buy it yourself to discover what is in it. One fascinating theme of the course is the way modern sensibilities are reflected in these depictions of the ancient past. For example, depending on the film Imperial Rome was a stand-in for Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Just as science fiction often takes current concerns and projects them onto future settings so the same thing happened here with movies and TV shows set in the past. A word about format. Given the topic you might think this will only work on video. If I have any criticism it is in the small number of images that accompany these lectures. There are no film clips, which I assume is due to issues of rights and cost. A handful of stills and other images are used, but the lectures are mostly Prof. Aldrete addressing the camera. Fortunately, as in his previous courses, he is outstanding at painting a word picture, so if audio is your only option than go for it.
Date published: 2020-01-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Historian Goes to the Movies As far as content comparing what was portrayed in the movies to actual history, Dr. Aldrete did an absolutely excellent job - but honestly, I might as well have downloaded the audio version from Audible. For a course reviewing movies there are no film clips or even photographic stills. For example, Dr. Aldrete discusses Elizabeth Taylor's costumes during the movie "Cleopatra," but the only example shown is an ancient graphic from the wall of an Egyptian temple. When a photo is used, it is only a shot from the film's poster. I still would recommend the course, it really is informative - just frustrating because of lack of examples. (I realize there is an extra cost to obtaining the rights to actual movies clips and photos - but The Great Courses should have made the investment - at least for movie stills.
Date published: 2020-01-09
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