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A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome

The glory of ancient Rome meets the grandeur of modern Hollywood in these 12 lectures that examine the historical accuracy of Ben-Hur, Gladiator, and other classic sword-and-sandal epics.
A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome is rated 3.8 out of 5 by 74.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Course I've taken on The Great Courses! I just finished this course. It was fascinating and gripping. Professor Aldrete's lectures were very lively and engaging and his erudition is impressive. His analyses of the films discussed in the course were insightful - reflecting on the cultural perceptions of the times and highlighting interesting information on the film makers. I look forward to re-watching some of these films from a new perspective. I particularly enjoyed Professor Aldrete's energetic gestures (Quintillian?) - they were captivating. And is this not what a lecturer/orator should be able to do - capture and hold his audience? It is admirable to possess academic knowledge. To be able to breath life into it is a gift. I have all of Professor Aldrete's lectures on my wish list. And I will definitely look for any books he may have written.
Date published: 2024-05-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Enjoyable This is the fourth course I have taken presented by Prof. Aldrete and although it is not as serious as his other historical courses, it is certainly entertaining. I have seen most of the films he covers and never gave a thought to how historical accurate they were at the time. It would have been nice to see film clips; however, due to copyright laws I am certain that would have resulted in very expensive production costs.
Date published: 2023-09-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My favorite of the great courses I thoroughly enjoyed this course The only thing that stops it from seeming like your friend who is knowledgeable about roman history is telling you about it over a drink is the weird cut in/out music that plays when speaker changes subjects. I really wish there were more lectures like this in different subjects, such as Astrophysicist goes to the movies or War historian goes to the movie. This lecture is well worth the price and time.
Date published: 2023-07-08
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Enlightening, could have been much better. As an avid enthusiast of anything classical, especially roman culture, I really enjoyed this course. However, I believe that I would have enjoyed it even more, if the lectures had been overlaid at interval with real scenes (not static photos) from the referenced movies, even if the audio was muted, as he performed his analysis. Better still, instead of citing dialogue by actors in the films, he could have simply played the scenes, and thereafter analyzed the dialogue. I have seen most of the movies and TV shows discussed and was able to relate to the professor's commentaries to specific scenes and so was able to appreciate contextual references, but for those I have not seen before, such as "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire," "Satyricon," etc., I was not able to do so, and so my joy was significantly abridged. Is it possible that he was not able to fully access and utilize the films he discussed due to copyright issues? Another observation I made was that, while the professor invoked Roman influences on a number of relatively recent science fiction movies, he omitted what I consider to be the best exemplar of all - Star Wars. I believe that George Lucas' intent was fully conscious when he had Palpatine transform the galaxy into a "galactic empire" and assumed the role of emperor, something that he planned and orchestrated by manipulating everyone around him over a long period (as depicted in Episodes 1, 2 and 3 of the franchise), much like Julius Caesar did, even though he never technical become emperor. Hence, the rebellion led by Luke and Leia was the parallel of that by Spartacus and other freedom fighters. Anyhow, all in all, the professor's lectures - the Rise of Rome, etc. are quite good. I look forward to future lectures on the subject of Roman culture.
Date published: 2023-01-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ancient Rome in Contemporary Context Professor Aldrete has provided a rich and insightful discussion of the depiction of Ancient Rome on film. It is important to manage expectations from the outset in that this is not a "film class" focused on the history and/or production of the films nor is it course in film criticism popular or theoretical. It is course on the historical accuracies and inaccuracies of selected films. As such, you will not encounter film clips here, but you will encounter detailed descriptions of scenes relevant to the depiction of Ancient Rome. In some cases, the video version provides a graphic such as that of the Circus Maximus for the chariot race in Ben-Hur. The absence of movie clips does not distract from the purpose of the course. Professor Aldrete treats the films as a whole and an effective strategy might be to watch the films immediately before or after listening to the lecture depending on one’s familiarity with the film. I need to revisit Life of Brian in the new context discovered in the course. On a related note, some reviewers have noted that this particular sword-and sandal genre was launched prior to Quo Vadis or have noted earlier productions related the Shakespearean films. While there may be a film criticism argument here, I think that these films are outside the scope of this course. Professor Aldrete selected films that pointed to specific accuracies, inaccuracies, and contexts related to the depiction of Ancient Rome and is clear about why he made these choices. Instructors are always faced with the challenge of what to include in a course but do well to explain those choices in the classroom. To that end, Professor Aldrete includes a “List of Notable Films Set in the Ancient Roman World” begins on p. 112 of the course guidebook and includes films not covered in the course along with a very brief comment. I appreciated inclusion of two Italian films (Lecture 11) and a discussion of Juvenal’s “bread and circuses” in contemporary science fiction film and television (Lecture 12). These lessons provide a solid conclusion to the course while providing an important lesson in historical context. The films in these two lectures and all the films in the course for that matter are important reminders that these films are as much about the culture and society that produced them as they are about Ancient Rome. Once final note, there have been some negative references to Professor Aldrete’s hand gestures during his lectures. Frankly, I found these most enjoyable as they tracked the gestures actually used by Roam orators (Lecture 9). What a great lecture strategy but not unexpected given that he authored Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome which is an insightful argument about the power of gesture. Having said that, this is a course that you can listen to as the lack of a video will not lessen your understanding of the course argument and information. Well done.
Date published: 2022-12-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very enjoyable. Since I had seen most of these movies, and my daughter and I see most archaeological documentaries on ancient Rome, it really was enlightening. I wish the course were longer, because there are other movies out there that would be good to look at. One of the other reviewers mentioned "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum", for example. You do not need anything but the audio version. I never would have thought of "Life of Brian", but the review was very amusing.
Date published: 2022-08-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful Course Dr. Aldrete is spectacular! He makes the course a true pleasure to watch, and it is never boring.
Date published: 2022-05-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I wished for more I wish Professor Aldrete had included a few scenes from the movies being reviewed. His review is more of a back story of the movies being discussed. Sometimes a photo was added for context. It is a short series with only 12 lectures so there is plenty of room to expand with movie scenes. Professor Aldrete is a very animated speaker that makes for an engaging presentation. I enjoyed this as well as previous lectures.
Date published: 2022-04-25
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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.


Gregory S. Aldrete

As an ancient historian, my goals are to share the enthusiasm for and fascination with antiquity that I feel, and to show some of the connections between that world and our own.


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 category, receiving both its Founders Association Award for Excellence in Scholarship and its Founders Association Award for Excellence in Teaching. That recognition of his teaching skills was echoed on a national level in 2009, when he received the American Philological Association Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Classics at the College Level-the national teaching award given annually by the professional association of classics professors. The recipient of many prestigious research fellowships including five from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Professor Aldrete has published several important books in his field, including Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome; Floods of the Tiber in Ancient Rome; Daily Life in the Roman City: Rome, Pompeii, and Ostia; The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Daily Life I: The Ancient World (as editor); Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery: Reconstructing and Testing Ancient Linen Body Armor (with S. Bartell and A. Aldrete) and The Long Shadow of Antiquity: What Have the Greeks and Romans Done for Us (with A. Aldrete).

By This Professor

History's Great Military Blunders and the Lessons They Teach
The Decisive Battles of World History
A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome
History of the Ancient World: A Global Perspective
The Roman Empire: From Augustus to The Fall of Rome
The Rise of Rome
A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome


Quo Vadis Kick-Starts the Sword-and-Sandal Genre

01: 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.

32 min
Ben-Hur: The Greatest Chariot Race

02: 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.

32 min
Spartacus: Kubrick’s Controversial Epic

03: 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.

34 min
Cleopatra: Spectacle Gone Wild

04: 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?

33 min
The Fall of the Roman Empire and Ancient Epics

05: 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.

33 min
I, Claudius: The BBC Makes an Anti-Epic

06: 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.

32 min
Life of Brian: The Roman World’s a Funny Place

07: 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 Monthy 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.

33 min
Gladiator: The Historical Epic Revived

08: 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?

34 min
Rome: HBO’s Gritty Take on Ancient History

09: 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.

33 min
Centurion and The Eagle: The Legions in Britain

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.

31 min
Scipione l’africano and Fellini Satyricon

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.

33 min
Bread and Circuses in Sci-Fi Films

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?

33 min