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‘Roma victor’: Rome’s cinematic dominance over ancient Greece

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The Greeks have a word for it: 'second'...

Val Kilmer making an appointment with the author of this article

Greece’s ancient historical past is full of great and terrible deeds, wars and battles, heroes and villains; to most students of the period it seems packed with ideas for movies, but for some reason Hollywood frequently neglects ancient Greece in favour of its successor; Ancient Rome.

The reasons for this are multiple, but in large part they fall to the studio’s desires to create films with maximum audience appeal. While it would be easy to blame this cinematic shortcoming entirely on the studios, the audience too is to blame, as when we approach different genres we do so with pre-conceived ideas and expectations that we expect to be met, but which also create a barrier that can prevent us from approaching a certain film if we have had a negative experience of it.

The problem with films set in ancient Greece is that they come with connotations that are frequently problematic to audiences, or certain audiences. However, Rome usually avoids or alters these problem-areas, and has continually equipped itself with a greater arsenal of characteristics with which to entice and enthrall the western cinema-going audience.

Visual Appearance

To begin with, Greece lacks an easily identifiable visual appearance. We may think of the Parthenon in Athens, but there are few other truly memorable Greek sites, especially ones we have seen in films before. In contrast, Rome has the marble senate, great circuses made famous by the iconic Ben-Hur chariot race, and huge arenas where gladiators fight wild animals and each other, and Christian martyrs are put to death. To western eyes, Rome - or Roman cities - connotes action, violence and sports; in short, entertainment.

Nothing much has changed...

As such, it is far easier for writers to adapt this setting to suit a storyline that will appeal to our western sensibilities, especially as our modern society bears a closer resemblance to this vision of the past. Sites such as the Coliseum are hugely successful tourist sites today, and are even more iconic due to the parallels often drawn to modern sporting events. Indeed, Ridley Scott drew on these connections by mimicking the camera angles and style of shooting sports events for the filming of the gladiatorial battles in Gladiator (2000).

Greece does have a sports culture, but the running, wrestling, discus and so on that we associate with ancient Greece do not have the danger and excitement that gladiatorial brutality or speeding, scythed chariots have on audiences. Another downfall of Greece is its association of being ‘intellectual’; the domain of bearded philosophers who sit and lecture each other, which for most would not make enthralling viewing. Scholar Gideon Nisbet makes the interesting point that the representation of Socrates in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (a bearded philosopher in a dry, dusty temple lecturing others) personifies the common (mis-)conception of ancient Greece, and argues that the character only really comes to life when taken out of Greece, riding a Wild West wagon like the Roman cinematic heroes ride their chariots.

When presented with a vision of the past, it can be easy for an audience to feel alienated or confused by a world not their own. Rome, more so than Greece, can give audiences that vision, but provide enough visual cues for the audience to feel suitably comfortable therein.

Russell Crowe trashes the opposition in 'Gladiator' (2000)

Sexuality

Colin Farrell in 'Alexander' (2004)Greece also suffers from the problematical issue of sexuality. Although modern terminology would call some ancient Greeks ‘bi-sexual’, male same-sex love remains an awkward subject for mainstream Hollywood, especially for conservative America. Cinematic Rome has its dancing girls and orgiastic scenes (taken to the extreme in Tinto Brass’s Caligula and HBO’s Rome), setting popular opinion of Rome as heterosexual regardless of historical fact.

An important element within representations of sexuality in ancient Greco-Roman-set films is Christianity. The majority of Roman-set films take place during or after the life of Christ, while some set beforehand, like Spartacus, have overriding Christian sentiments, morality and imagery. These films were released in post-war America, and so the Christian morality emphasised throughout was meant to reinforce moral values in its American audiences, along with examples of democracy defeating tyrannical emperors which resonated following the fall of the Nazi regime. Most story-lines in these films see the Roman Empire and its emperor as a symbol of oppression and decadence, while a Roman soldier or similar character finds salvation through his love for a Christian girl (as in The Robe) or through converting to Christianity. The target of conservative, family audiences, along with the Christian restraint and morality, meant that the heterosexual protagonists avoided the debauched sexual activities of the Romans, and affirmed the idea of marriage.


"Hollywood has long marginalised homo-(or bi-)sexuality in its ancient epics"


Hollywood has long marginalised homo-(or bi-)sexuality in its ancient epics; it was absent from The 300 Spartans, Richard Burton’s portrayal of Alexander the Great remained heterosexual, and hints at Crassus’ homosexuality in Spartacus were employed to degrade his character in the infamous ‘snails and oysters’ scene (that was cut from the original release), where Lawrence Olivier’s character tries to seduce his new slave, played by Tony Curtis. More recently we saw the controversy surrounding Oliver Stone’s Alexander, where some critics complained about the clarity regarding Alexander’s sexuality or the filmmaker’s confidence in depicting Alexander as outwardly bi-sexual (something I believe is made clear), but either way the film was a commercial failure. Stone was simply trying to remain true to history while making the film as accessible to a wide audience as possible, but in his attempt to keep everyone happy it seemed he pleased no-one.

Politics

Greek politics also present a major problem for western audiences. The geography of the city states (polis) and the complex political structures within the cities are troublesome to understand even for students, but especially for mass audiences within the confines of a plot-driven two-hour film. The Roman Republic could be construed as similarly complex, but for the few films set during this period political manoeuvrings are generally symbolised by two or three main politicians with different allegiances, making it easier for an audience to follow. For example, in Spartacus the senate and its activities are boiled down to our villain, Crassus, and the liberal-hearted Gracchus.

The majority of Roman epics employ the figure of the emperor to reduce political complexities and create a single antagonist for the hero; one that usually symbolises Rome, its corruption, vice and cruelty. Roman politics also draws the nearest parallels to America’s government, with its senators, popular and conservative politicians, and a single ruler (although not elected) who acts as a figurehead. Adhering to this creates a familiarity between the western audience and the otherwise complex or alien governments of antiquity, allowing them to engage with the films more.

Jason And The Argonauts (1963)The Myth-ing Link?

The exceptions to these points appear to be mythological movies, such as Jason and the Argonauts and Troy; the latter utilising its Hollywood star-power and the influential success of Gladiator. During the ‘golden age’ of the ancient historical epic in the 1950s and 1960s, there were arguably only two major historical Greek films, The 300 Spartans and Alexander the Great. The rest were based in myth and legend, including the aforementioned Jason, as well as Helen of Troy and the many Hercules films that blossomed following the success of the Steve Reeves-starring smash and its sequel, Hercules Unchained. Huge numbers of low budget films, mainly made in Italy and set in Greece or Rome, were produced, usually with the motif of muscular men clad in brightly coloured, high-hemmed tunics. These films, know as ‘pepla’, may have inadvertently contributed to the negative connotations of ancient Greece on screen, as most were camp, cheesy, badly made and dubbed, and borrowed heavily from ancient Rome for their look and content, further damaging the idea of Greece’s visual appearance.

Zack Snyder’s 300, however, is an interesting case study. Although it was based in Greek history, it was nevertheless an impressive commercial success, and a prequel is now in the making. Although the film does not radically alter or disprove the points I have discussed above, it instead succeeded by playing to them. A lot of the imagery and score recall that of Gladiator, using that film’s triumph to appeal to the same audiences, and its protagonist seems to be a copy of Maximus; dark haired, bearded, loving to his wife and son but vicious in combat. As well as proudly borrowing from Rome on film, it also toys with the issue of homosexuality, by wallowing in the camp quality of the Spartans and their appearance, while simultaneously courting the Hollywood ideal of the body-beautiful and aggressive masculinity. Furthermore, arriving after the influential hit Sin City, 300’s comic-book sensibility meant it felt and looked more like a mythological film than one based in history.

300 (2006)

Conclusion

In short, Greece has too many problematical connotations – its visual look, its cultural recreations, politics and sexuality – for easy incorporation into mainstream cinema, although some films have adapted or altered these points in order to succeed. However, Rome, with its visual style, heterosexual connotations, political system, Christian connections and blood-sports culture make it far easier for western audiences to engage with, and has proven throughout cinematic history that it has a greater audience appeal.

The fall and rise of the Roman epic


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Comments 

 
#1 Stephanie Dray 2010-08-30 22:05
Can it not also be that Roman culture is more easily defined? The Romans left a very clear impression of who they were as a people, whereas the looser collection of Greek city states each had their own identity.
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#2 Theo, aka Son of Sparta 2010-09-01 06:26
The main reason that Rome dominates in films over Greece is mainly due to the fact that present day America/Hollywood has more in common with the Roman Empire than the ancient Greek world. Yes the US is a democracy, but is ruthless military foreign policy and world domination places it closer to Imperial Rome than classical Greece.

I also disagree that Greece "lacks an easily identifiable visual appearance," based on that comment I doubt the author has ever visited the country. Just to name a few Greek sites there is Delphi (where the ancient oracle stood) Olympia (home of the ancient Olympic games) Sparta (the military city-state situated on a plain next to the Taygetos mountain range) Athens (with it's Acropolis) on the island of Rhodes there was the largest bronze statue ever built known as the Colossus, on the island of Crete has it's famous Labyrinth at Knossos, on the island of Delos stood the ancient Greek world's treasury, the island of Santorini also know as Thera has often been associated by archaeologists as "Atlantis' and the list goes on. There are also ancient Greek plays and tragedies that have made it on to film by non-Hollywood studios such as Michael Cacoyannis' film Iphigenia (1977) or Yorgos Javellas adaptation of Sophocles' play, Antigone (1961).

There is a lot of potential of bringing ancient Greece to the big screen, let us hope some in Hollywood decide to tap into this so long as it isn't shot in Mexico or has Scandinavian looking blonde blue eyed actors pretending to be Greek Gods.
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#3 Chris Davies 2010-09-02 14:31
Hi,
In response to your posts I just thought I'd clarify; I definately think Greece has some incredible sites and I have been to some (and studied others - I've got a degree in Ancient History).

However, from the perspective of 'Hollywood' mainstream cinema the visual appearence is less obvious. Most films that have been made and set in ancient Greece, particularly those made during the 1950s and 60s (the majority of which were pepla and so low budget), borrowed from ancient Rome for their set dressings, design, costume etc. Cinema not only affects people's general perspective of history, but also their on-screen idea of history. This frequent borrowing from Rome has left most audiences with a slightly more muddled idea of what ancient Greece looked like, and as it is harder to distinguish between the two, and the different city states/regions, filmmakers are posed with the problem of how to define Greece on screen that wont feel completely alien to audiences. When some directors like Oliver Stone try to pursue 'historical accuracy' and the film flops it further discourages other filmmakers from approaching the genre. (I'm actually a fan of Alexander and think it is a much better film than Troy, although less accessible to a wider audience).

I completely agree with you Theo, I can't wait for a big budget, mainstream film set in Ancient Greece that treats the history well and does well with audiences (if only Ridley Scott was in the mood to approach it!) so let's keep our fingers crossed for the future!

If you're interested, Gideon Nisbet has written a fascinating book on this topic entitled: 'Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture' and it is well worth reading.

Thanks for reading my piece though.
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#4 Paul 2010-09-05 14:19
I agree that Ancient Greece is confusing to the average western movie viewer, it was an incredibly complex and remarkable civilisation. Rome in comparison, was a simpler 'empire' with more emphasis on conquest and rudimentary blood-sport etc. Arguably, it's easier to play with because there is less information available on Rome than the complex records of history left to us by the Ancient Greeks. This is why most Roman movies are Hollywood fiction (eg, Gladiator), compared with Greek movies that are based on real Ancient Greek history or Mythology. Had 'Gladiator' been based on fact Maximus would not have existed and perhaps audiences would learn just how much Rome was inspired by Greece - eg, Marcus Aurelius wrote Meditations and his most important thoughts in Greek. He was a lover of Stoic and Platonic Greek philosophy. And Commodus was very fond of Heracles, and considered himself Hercules reborn, often dressing like him and even carrying a club. To conclude, it's far easier to present on film the barbaric side of Rome, ignoring it's Greek connections and telling a bag full of fibs along the way, than it is to present Ancient Greece, which is far too epic and sophisticated for the average studios, directors and viewers.
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