History of the World According to the Movies: Part 4- Ancient Rome


Okay, I know this is from Life of Brian which is a comedy but this movie scene nevertheless shows a lot of things you see in a movie on Ancient Rome. For instance, the soldiers are dressed in outfits similar to Greek hopilites and all the actors portraying Romans are British (justified since this is a British film and Monty Python). Nevertheless, this is a very entertaining film I really enjoy.

No series of history in the movies can be complete without mentioning one of the ancient entity everyone talks about: Rome. More movies set in ancient times usually pertain to Ancient Rome than any other. And most movies set in Ancient Rome usually focus on the Empire during the first century. Of course, there are plenty of reasons why. After all, when we think of Rome we think of things like depraved hedonistic rulers and aristocrats, Julius Caesar, gladiators, statues, Cleopatra, Pompeii and Herculaneum being covered by Mount Vesuvius’ ash, great feats of architecture, tons of fighting and intrigue, assimilation of cultures, and Jesus as well as the early Christian era (which will be in a separate post I swear.) Oh, and the fact that it lasts for a considerable long time like from 753 B. C. E. to A. D. 476 (or to 1453 if you include the Byzantine Empire but their time is more suited for The Middle Ages. Also, the fall of the Western Roman Empire usually marks the end of Ancient times anyways.) Not to mention, the Ancient Romans left so many records and remains for archaeologists to examine. While much of Roman history is drawn from archaeology (from Pompeii and Herculaneum naturally) and written records, sometimes it’s hard to which is true and which isn’t since it was mainly written by aristocrats who had biased opinions. Also, many people don’t know that Rome was originally founded as a kingdom before it became a Republic and later an Empire. Still, despite all the Roman history material we have, filmmakers still do take artistic liberties and add things in we’re sure didn’t happen, which I shall list.

The Kingdom of Rome and Roman Republic:

Spartacus was born a slave and was crucified outside the gates of Rome. (He was enslaved as a prisoner of war or an ex-Roman auxiliary {non-citizen} soldier sold to gladiator school for desertion. Oh, and he died during the battle so everything from the I Am Spartacus scene in Spartacus is mostly made up.)

Spartacus’ slave revolt led to a crisis that resulted in Crassus becoming dictator. (The Roman Republic was still alive and well at this time and when Crassus went after Spartacus, he was an relatively wealthy ex-praetor and after the revolt would later serve a term as Consul {a bit like prime minister or chairman of the board} after the war but he never was a dictator of Rome. Though ruthless and possibly bisexual {common among Roman aristocrats} he wasn’t psychotic like the Sir Laurence Olivier portrayal. Also, if it helps, he’d later lose his life in a battle with the Parthians who not only decapitated him but also used his severed head as a prop for a play.)

Rome was founded as a Republic. (It was originally founded as a kingdom, later became a “Republic” or an aristocratic oligarchy, and then an Empire.)

Spartacus had a son with a woman from Britannia. (While it’s unclear whether Spartacus had any children at all, he most certainly didn’t know anyone from Britannia, let alone sleep with someone from there. No Roman would step foot in Britain until thirty years after Spartacus’ revolt.)

Spartacus’ revolt would lead to the break up of the Roman slave system. (No chance in hell that was ever going to happen since slavery survived for another two thousand years, which was well after Rome. And no, Rome never abolished slavery and crushed every slave revolt taking place.)

Slave rebels in Spartacus’ revolt lived a harmonious existence with one another. (C’mon, there had to be some confusion of purpose among Spartacus’ followers.)

Spartacus was a gladiator who led a slave revolt as well as humane guy. (It’s said he was brutal enough to put some three hundred Roman prisoners to death in honor of a slave comrade-in-arms by the name of Crixus. Then again, this just might be Roman propaganda. Still, if he did, he might’ve had some good reason to.)

Caesar’s last words were “Et Tu Brute?” (They weren’t. What he actually said to have told Brutus was, “You too, my child?”)

Julius Caesar was stabbed by members of the Roman Senate because they thought he was becoming too much of a king as well as a danger to the Republic. (Well, yes, Caesar was well aware of his reputation as well as had megalomaniac tendencies {though he did refuse kingship in 44 B. C. E. though he was pretty much king in all but name and had declared himself dictator for life}. Yet, the senators were also worried about being able to compete for real power and that any office they held was meaningless even if it was a consulship. Oh, and it’s said he was going to depart in three days time and leave the running of Rome to his henchmen Oppius and Balbus who was a Spaniard, which the Roman nobles thought absolutely intolerable. Add to that Cleopatra had his son Caesarion {I’m not making this up} and wearing red boots {what old Roman kings used to wear}. Thus, they were more worried about their own power stakes than the form of government itself in Rome at least with the possible exception of Brutus.)

Gracchus was a politician of plebeian sensibilities and showed some sympathy for Spartacus and his followers, if only with the ultimate goal to upstage Crassus. (There were actually two revolutionary politicians named Gracchus {both brothers} but they were long dead before Spartacus’ time, like at least 50 years prior. Also, they were tribunes, not senators.)

Spartacus’ men were crucified because they refused to hand him in. (The Romans had planned on killing them all anyway to set a very clear example not to mess with Rome. So any of the slave survivors would certainly have been crucified, a fate that would’ve awaited Spartacus had he survived the battle as well {which he didn’t in real life}. The women and children would probably have been renslaved though.)

Julius Caesar participated in suppressing Spartacus’ Rebellion. (Sure he was a young officer in the legion but it’s unknown whether he did take part in it.)

The Carthage general Hannibal was white. (We’re not sure whether he was or not since he hailed from North Africa.)

Spartacus was against the gladiatorial games. (Spartacus celebrated several of his victories by holding gladiatorial games, which is strange for a freedom fighter. Makes him seem less like Katniss Everdeen and more like Alma Coin.)

Spartacus was a freedom fighter who desired to have slavery eliminated. (He may have been just trying to get out of Italy or maybe even a warlord escaped slavery through rape, pillage, and burn. He probably wasn’t the kind of freedom fighter portrayed by Kirk Douglas.)

Cicero was involved in Julius Caesar’s assassination. (He wasn’t involved in any way, though he approved of it.)

Agrippa was seated in the Curia and wore a senatorial toga. (He was a hereditary member of an equestrian order and prohibited under Republican law from non-invitational attendance to the Curia or wearing any patrician insignia.)

Julius Caesar declared himself Emperor. (He was Emperor in all but name at that point he became dictator for life.)

Julius Caesar had a full head of hair. (His family earned the name Caesar as a joke because the men were well known for pre-mature baldness. At the time it meant “hairy” until Julius Caesar showed up. Still, though depicted with a full head of hair on busts and other art, the real Caesar would’ve been bald for most of his adult life, maybe since his late teens.)

Mark Antony was a dashing, romantic hero and Rome would’ve been far better off under him than Octavian. (Between Antony and Octavian, Antony was the more violent of the two. Also, Cleopatra was well know for backstabbing and murder for hire as well, but being a Ptolemy, you can’t really hold it against her.)


Cleopatra was an Egyptian known for her beauty and was one of the most gorgeous women of her time able to win men over with her sexuality. (For one, Cleopatra was Macedonian Greek and a direct descendant through a man called Ptolemy who was a general of Alexander the Great and her capital was Alexandria founded by, well, you know who. Still, she did speak Egyptian and presented herself as a reincarnation of Isis. Second, though archaeologists have never found Cleopatra’s body, they have found bodies of some of her family and most of the women they found were no more than 5 feet tall, overweight with Venus ring necks, and sported noses comparable to the size of Adrien Brody’s, not an attractive combination at least nowadays {and certainly nothing like Elizabeth Taylor}. And even Roman historians say that she wasn’t the best looking girl around. What Cleopatra’s best assets were her strong personality, her intelligence, and her political savvy and that was how she won over Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.)

Cleopatra killed herself by poisoning herself through snakebite by an asp. (Again, this is also false but often depicted in movies because it’s in many ancient sources. Actually, historians may agree that she committed suicide to avoid capture by Octavian but the methods, well, that’s a matter of debate since the asp would cause a slow and painful death through paralysis. If Cleopatra wanted to kill herself to avoid capture, she probably wanted to do it quick so an asp bite might not have done the job.)

Cleopatra had affairs with Roman leaders out of satisfying her sexual urges. (Actually she slept with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony because it also helped her country retain political independence from Rome. She was doing it for political reasons, not for herself. It didn’t work for long as we know now.)

Caesarion was Julius Caesar’s son and heir. (Caesar never acknowledged him though he was his son. Also, in order to be Caesar’s heir, Cleopatra would have to be a Roman citizen as well, which she wasn’t. Not to mention, he made Octavian his heir anyway.)

Cleopatra was unusually brutal toward her own siblings. (Yes, Cleo killed her brothers and sisters but knocking off relatives wasn’t unusual for an Egyptian pharaoh. Not to mention, the Ptolemys were notorious for marrying and killing their relatives. There’s no wonder why that bunch is considered one of the most dysfunctional families in history.)

Cleopatra led a procession into the Roman Forum. (Foreign rulers were prohibited from crossing the Pomerium which was the sacred boundary of Rome.)


In Roman gladiator matches the loser always died. (Actually the loser’s fate really depended on how well he fought for the Romans would never let a good gladiator die in a fight even if he lost as well as his popularity {emperors could suffer in popularity if they allowed a renowned gladiator get slaughtered}. It was usually convicts sentenced to the arena who were made to fight to the death, not professional gladiators who went through regular training. Besides, training gladiators was expensive and it didn’t make sense to have them slaughtered their first time out in the arena. Sure gladiators were slaves, criminals, and POWs as well as didn’t live long but the death rate among Roman gladiators was 1 out of every 4 not 1 out of every 2. Also, gladiators were treated more like many of our professional athletes as well as better than most slaves of their day.)

Gladiators had chiseled physiques. (Actually unlike you see in films, most gladiators didn’t have chiseled six packs due to the fact that they had a carb-rich diet to cultivate a protective layer of fat which would protect them from shallow slashing blows that were typical in gladiator fights. So a real gladiator may have the chance of looking like a linebacker from the NFL than the chiseled hunks in Gladiator or Spartacus. But no one wants to see that.)

The sign for wanting a gladiator finished off was thumbs down and to spare him was thumbs up. (Actually, the signal to kill the gladiator was thumbs up, while the signal to spare him was in the shape of a fist.)

Gladiators usually fought people they didn’t know. (Gladiators fought only those they trained with at their school as depicted in Spartacus.)

Gladiators fought their counterparts of different sizes. (They were usually matched by their size.)

Gladiators fought in helmets of Germanic designs. (Those in Gladiator were made after Rome fell.)

Gorillas were used in the Roman Coliseum. (They wouldn’t be known to Europeans until 15 centuries later. Same goes for alligators, which only exist in the US and China where Romans had never stepped foot.)

The Roman Empire:

When Octavian declared war on Egypt, he stabbed Cleopatra’s ambassador Sosigenes of Alexandria with a spear. (This never happened. Also, Sosigenes was an astronomer and didn’t have any place in Cleopatra’s regime.)

Nero set fire to Rome and fiddled while it fell so he could expand his palace. (Actually, Nero was in Antium when the fire broke out and had nothing to do with causing it. Rather when he heard the news, he immediately rushed back home where he help try to extinguish the blaze and assisted in the rebuilding efforts paid by his own funds. Most historians believe that the fire was caused by his political enemies. As for the fiddle, well, it wasn’t invented yet.)

Nero was a hedonistic and bloodthirsty emperor who killed his mother and two of his wives as well as other political enemies, had an Oedipus complex, and blamed the burning of Rome on the Christians. (Actually with Nero’s life, it’s difficult to separate the fact from fiction. Yes, he did kill his mother and at least his first wife and several others but so did other emperors for the chances of assassination were very real. As for his second, she might have died from a miscarriage. As for his mother, she had considerable influence on him but I don’t think he was attracted to her. And for blaming the fire on Christians, even that’s up for debate. Overall, there was no doubt that Nero was a controversial figure who inspired considerable bias from ancient historians. Not to mention, most people who wrote about him and knew him personally {except for friend Senectus} hated him though he was a great lover of the arts and loved by the commoners.)

Octavian was a pathetic, tantrum prone to a homicidal degree, and totally unfit to rule as despot. (He was one of the most competent Roman Emperors who ever lived.)

Augustus was a wide-eyed idealist who tried to do everything for the good of Rome and only did his bad things because he was forced to by his enemies. (Yes, he was a competent emperor who tried to be good to Rome but did many bad things as well such as marry his daughter off to Tiberius and exile her when he found out she was having an affair.)

Marcus Aurelius wanted a return to the old Roman Republic and didn’t trust his son Commodus. (Marcus wouldn’t have wanted to return to the Roman Republic and actually did trust his son Commodus as well as wanted him to succeed his throne. After all, it was a Roman Emperor’s dream to have a son succeed him as well as a rather wise decision. Also, Rome had been through a string of decent emperors by the reign of Marcus Aurelius and the Roman Senate’s power would later be further diminished to the point of being purely ceremonial.)

The Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire were two different entities. (Actually the Byzantine Empire was the Roman Empire, it was the Eastern part of the Empire, even though they spoke Greek, they still used the same Roman systems and even referred to themselves as Roman long after the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453.)

Power automatically passed to Commodus after Marcus Aurelius died, even though his dad wanted someone else to succeed him. (Marcus Aurelius chose his son to succeed him. Not to mention, there was no clear emperor succession line because many of the emperors before Marcus Aurelius simply didn’t have any surviving sons to succeed them or didn’t live long enough to have them. Thus, many of these emperors would appoint a successor and legally adopt them. A strong emperor’s son wouldn’t be passed over until Constantius’ son Constantine, which sparked a civil war.)

Lucilla’s son was alive during his uncle’s reign. (Her son was already dead by the time his uncle became emperor.)

Marcus Aurelius banned the gladiatorial games. (Only in Antioch and only as a punishment. He did cause a shortage of gladiators by putting them in the army and the games actually profited from it. A Roman Emperor banning the gladiatorial games in the 2nd century? Unthinkable!)

Octavian called himself Octavian. (More like Gaius Octavius Caesar at least from the time he was adopted to the time he was emperor.)

Augustus referred to himself as Emperor. (He preferred people call him the princeps or First Citizen of Rome, not emperor.)

Caligula was a hedonistic, sadistic, depraved, and psychotic ruler with megalomaniac delusions of grandeur who referred to himself as a god, had endless extravagant orgies, liked to kill and torture for fun, had incestuous relations with his sisters, as well as other absurd antics of insanity and gore. In other words, he was a complete monster. (Well, he probably was a bad enough emperor to have himself and most of his family killed {save Claudius} by his own bodyguards {many Roman Emperors died this way}, his monstrosity during his reign is probably an exaggeration and created by noble Romans who didn’t like him. Still, he was said to be popular among the lower classes and was seen as a noble ruler the first six months of his reign. Yet, he probably did want to increase his authority which made him unpopular with the Senate as well, had several conspiracies against him, may have had an excuse for killing his great uncle Tiberius {who killed several of his family members [like his dad] leaving him as the sole male survivor}, spent extravagant sums of money on ambitious construction projects {including two aqueducts in Rome} and his luxurious dwellings, had several family members killed {typical for Roman Emperors}, and might’ve wanted the people to recognize as a god. However, he probably didn’t have sex with his sisters {though he did make one as his queen but they were married to different people}. He probably didn’t make his horse a consul or declare war on sea deity to collect shells as booty. He most likely didn’t kill Tiberius who probably died of natural causes. Also, most sources about him were written 80 years after his death so reliability is questionable. Oh, and he didn’t like being called Caligula which translates to “Bootsie” in Latin. Bad ruler, yes, but not as evil or crazy as portrayed.)

Roman Emperor Commodus killed his father Marcus Aurelius, banged his sister, and was killed in the arena. (Actually, Commodus didn’t kill his father or slept with his sister. What killed Marcus Aurelius was chicken pox or plague. Not to mention, Commodus was a highly respected statesman who was chosen by his father to succeed him after a few years as his assistant. Also, he was married and had his sister killed for trying to assassinate him in order seize the throne herself. He’s not considered well regarded because he believed himself to be Hercules and tried to rename everything in the Empire after himself, including Rome {though he’s said to be popular with the army and the people}. He was also known as a spendthrift and tactless as well as for starting Rome’s long decline. As for his death, Commodus was strangled in his bathtub at the end of his thirteen year reign even though he did fight in the arena but mostly incognito. Nevertheless, he’s known for herding women, snogging men, killing rare animals, cross-dressing, boozing, coprophagy, being afraid of hairdressers, feeding his guards poisoned figs, and forcing people to beat themselves to death with pinecones. Guess Ridley Scott didn’t do his research.)

Rome conquered Germania in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. (Sorry, Ridley Scott, but Germania was never conquered by Rome.)

Tribune was a military office during the Roman Empire. (It’s actually a political office from the Roman Republic and no, tribunes wouldn’t serve alongside the Emperor.)

Roman Emperors fought wars against the Goths. (Only near the very end, in which the Romans lost.)

Marcus Aurelius was related to Claudius. (They came from two different dynasties.)

“Caesar” was the title for a Roman Emperor. (After 180 A. D. it was then reserved for the Emperor’s heir while “Augustus” was the Emperor’s title.)

Nero had pet Arabian Salukis. (They weren’t kept as pets in Europe until the Crusades.)

Agrippa was around the same age as Julius Caesar and Octavian’s mentor. (He was the same age as Octavian as well as his best friend who did almost everything for him. Yet, Augustus did treat him well.)

The 9th Legion was massacred in Scotland. (We’re not sure what happened to the 9th Legion since they disappear from the records after 108AD in Britain. Yet, some of its officers and detachments popped up occasionally.)


The Romans referred the Flavian Amphitheatre as the Coliseum. (Coliseum wasn’t used until way after the Roman Empire.)

Crucifixion was one of the main methods of execution during the Roman Empire. (Crucifixion was a punishment for crimes against the state, which was a serious crime and one that Jesus was crucified for {Note: Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews}. Besides, they had other methods of punishment for criminals like gladiator school, slavery, and for the aristocrats, exile and suicide. And if you killed your father, they’d put you in a sack with an animal before throwing you into the sea.)

Ancient Rome was filled with white marble statues and buildings. (They were painted in bright colors and so were many historical monuments in ancient civilization, well, a good many of them. Same would go for the Greeks.)

Roman aristocratic men wore togas almost anywhere. (They only wore them in the forum because they were required to and avoided wearing one whenever they could.)

The Roman Senate was an elected body. (They were appointed by the Roman censor, the Emperor, the Senate itself by a vote, or won a major public office at election {except Plebian Tribuneship}, even during the Republic. There was even a Citizens’ Assembly from which Senators were excluded and any citizen can vote on the matter at hand that day. They also had significant legislative and executive power and much like Athenian democracy.)

Roman centurions had uniforms similar to Greek hoplites. (No, they looked pretty different and later ended up looking more medieval than anything you’d see from ancient Greece. Also, there’s a variation that comes with pants.)

The Romans were a hedonistic people. (They were no more hedonistic than anyone else. Well, maybe the aristocrats but your average Roman citizens, not so much. Though some surviving Roman literature puts Fifty Shades of Grey to shame.)

All Roman soldiers were known as centurions. (A centurion was a Roman Army officer or platoon leader.)

Winning chariot horses got to race another day. (They were sacrificed as offerings, but the winner got to keep the tail.)

Roman crosses were T-shaped. (They had several different shapes and weren’t standardized.)

The Romans were cruel oppressors in their conquered areas. (Well, yes, but many of their domains had as cruel and brutal criminal justice systems as they did and resistance movements spent more time squabbling amongst themselves than resisting the Romans. Not to mention, they did improve the lives of many of their subjects. Also, being seen as a Messiah isn’t as good as it’s cracked up to be {as the story of Jesus would tell you}.)

Rome was the only Empire in existence during its time. (Well, in Europe. However, there was also their rivals the Parthians {later Sassanid} and Han China.)

Roman soldiers wore the lorica segmentata armor. (They only wore this during the first century. It’s just that its the easiest and cheapest Roman armor to make for costume designers. Also, many Roman soldiers outside Rome usually wore the uniform they already had.)

Most Roman architecture was composed of marble. (It was mostly built from brick but most of the bricks either crumbled or were stolen for other buildings while the marble was left alone.)

The Ancient Romans had all out orgies of debauchery. (Orgies were seen as secret religious rituals and no, they didn’t involve lurid and debauched sex. Okay, the orgies involved plenty of lurid and debauched sex but it was nothing like Caligula. Many Roman couples usually had sex at night, in complete darkness, with their clothes on.  Of course, the wealthy did have sex in front of their servants but they were mostly seen as furniture that bring you stuff. Also, they definitely had sex with their slaves, as depicted in the notorious bathing scene in Spartacus when Sir Laurence Olivier basically tells Tony Curtis that he’s his slave and he better do what he wants. Even if it means having sex with him.)

Roman birth control was very effective. (Roman contraceptive methods were virtually useless. It wasn’t very common for Roman mothers to toss away newborn babies in the trash heap left to die. It’s widely suggestive that many Roman slaves were unwanted children.)

Roman aristocrats only had sex with adults. (Pederasty was neither uncommon nor unacceptable so long as the kid involved was a slave, of course. If he was under 12 years old.)

Roman cities contained no lewd imagery on the streets. (Archaeology has told a very different story. Pornographic imagery was everywhere from the temples, bathhouses, sculpture, mosaics, and the like. Oh, and a lot of the buildings in Pompeii contain very dirty graffiti. Then there are Roman graves with plenty of inscriptions on the dead people’s sex lives.)

Ancient Rome was a lily white society. (Actually it was a real melting pot of every nationality stretching from western Europe to the Middle East by the 3rd century. However, Spartacus’s wife was probably not British, if he ever had one.)

Roman soldiers had beards had stirrups on their horses. (Stirrups weren’t invented yet and most Roman soldiers and aristocrats were clean shaven.)

Romans spoke in modern Ecclesiastic Latin. (They spoke in the historical Classic pronunciation whenever they spoke Latin.)

The Roman streets were sandy. (They were paved with stones.)

Romans had German Shepherds as pets. (They weren’t a registered breed until 1899.)

Roman legionaries camped on open spaces. (They usually fortified their camps.)

The Roman Army treated their soldiers with decency. (You may think this, especially in movies that show heroic Roman generals but it’s not true. Trainers regularly beat up trainees, exercises were done in full armor with non-lethal weapons that still hurt and weighed more than combat ones, and they were forced to learn some engineering {because they’d build aqueducts, roads, forts, and long mile walls}. They were also made to march on wooden poles because they’d have to build, fortify, dismantle their camp on a daily basis on campaign. And this was when they were lucky. Those trainees would get trainers so harsh they’d kill more people than actual battles. Pissed-off commanders could select a tenth of their soldiers to have the rest beat to death in order to teach them a disciplinary lesson {this is a process known as decimation}. Marcus Licinius Crassus killed 4,000 of his own men this way after taking command of an army recently trashed by Spartacus.)

One response to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 4- Ancient Rome

  1. Pingback: History of the World According to the Movies: Part 4- Ancient Rome | Daniel F. Bowman

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