There’s something irresistible about one of the most famous empires of the ancient world. From grandiose battles to gruesomeness one-on-one gladiatorial combat, grueling military service to the secret proclivities — sexual or otherwise — of the empire’s most notorious leaders, one thing ancient Rome is not short of is compelling stories. Here are ten of the best.
Already well known for his directorial work on 1995’s Mortal Kombat and the Resident Evil franchise, Paul W. S. Anderson’s 2014 foray into ancient Rome certainly represented a departure from the sci-fi and horror flicks that until then were his stock-in-trade. Anderson transplanted some of those genre sensibilities into his work on Pompeii, which, as the name suggests, relates the story of how the once bustling Roman town was completely destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. The movie’s narrative beats are those of an action film, a chariot chase through the streets offering Fast and Furious-level thrills and spills fit for the first century. Pompeii is admittedly silly, but tremendous fun. A cliched script is livened up by spirited performances by Game of Thrones star Kit Harington, The Matrix’ Carrie-Anne Moss, and Chernobyl’s Jared Harris, though Kiefer Sutherland earned himself a Golden Raspberry nomination for a wooden turn as an evil senator.
9. The Eagle
Rosemary Sutcliff’s best-selling book The Eagle of the Ninth, about Rome’s ill-fated Ninth Legion that, as Sutcliff had it, marched into Caledonia and were never seen again, has tickled the fancy of many TV and film producers over the years, but it was not until 2011 that a production appeared that was worthy of the material. Channing Tatum impresses as Aquila, a young Roman officer determined to discover what happened to his father’s lost legion, with former child actor Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) playing sidekick Esca, and Donald Sutherland and Mark Strong providing strong support as Aquila’ uncle and a lone survivor of the legion respectively. Though reviews were mixed, The Eagle was a minor box office hit; however, some commentators quibbled about a lack of fidelity to the source material and several acts of violence portrayed in an adaptation of a story that began life as a children’s novel.
On its release, more or less everybody connected with the creation of this infamous 1979 erotic drama disowned it, up to and including the writer (Gore Vidal) and the director (Tinto Brass), the latter after having been denied editorial control by the producers, who inserted several scenes of unsimulated sex involving Penthouse Pets. Malcolm McDowell channeled the quiet intensity of his earlier roles in cult classic if… (1969) and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1979) to his work as the famously dissolute Roman emperor. But the film begins to unravel after the halfway mark under the sheer weight of the procession of gore and sex scenes that pepper the runtime. Caligula was universally panned by critics who ignored the flirtations with arthouse and the highbrow soundtrack (works by Prokofiev and Khachaturian feature prominently) in favor of a simpler characterization of the work as pornography dressed up as art. The movie has since gained in reputation and certainly benefits from excellent performances by Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, and Helen Mirren.
The story of the chief Boudica, who led the British tribe of Iceni in a bloody revolt against Roman rule that dealt the Roman army a rare defeat on the battlefield, is the subject of this 2003 TV film. And although the limited budget shows at times — especially in the less than epic battle scenes — tight pacing and committed work by the principals makes it worth a watch. Alex Kingston, then principally known for her work opposite George Clooney in long-running medical drama ER, stars as Boudica, with Steven Waddington (The Last of the Mohicans, The Imitation Game) as her king. Also starring is a 19-year-old Emily Blunt in her first screen role; critical acclaim for her work alongside Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada would shortly follow.
X-Men‘s Michael Fassbender stars in this serviceable 2010 retelling of the Ninth Legion’s disappearance that features a lot more blood and guts than The Eagle would a year later. The dark, moody atmosphere features performances to match by Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham, The Wire’s Dominic West, and a pre-MCU Olga Kurylenko as a tribeswoman who witnesses her family being killed by the Romans, and sets out for revenge. For sheer bleakness, Centurion has few rivals, but for many cinemagoers, the dark aesthetics seemed to be a turn-off. It failed to impress reviewers and bombed at the box office. Eagle-eyed viewers may catch a glimpse of Riz Ahmed in a minor role, over a decade before he took home the Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in Sound of Metal.
5. Julius Caesar
This 1970 epic remains one of the best adaptations of William Shakespeare’s play about Caesar’s murder at the hands of Brutus. It’s fair to say no production ever gathered together a more impressive cast. No less than three Academy Award winners appeared in the guise of John Gielgud, Charlton Heston, and Jason Robards as Caesar, Mark Antony, and Brutus respectively, as well as luminaries of stage and screen such as Robert Vaughn, horror king Christopher Lee, Bond girl and Avengers star Diana Rigg, and Michael Gough
(who would later go on to play Alfred the butler in the Burton-Schumacher Batman films in the 1980s and 1990s). John Gielgud famously treated film roles as money-spinners rather than serious acting work, but he gives a scintillating performance here, and Heston is suitably arch as Antony.
After seven seasons playing Dr. Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Alexander Siddig branched out into film, putting in impressive performances in supporting roles opposite Orlando Bloom in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and in the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans, among others. In between, he played the title role in Hannibal, a 2006 TV film chronicling the life of the famous Carthaginian soldier, who took his army — as well as a few dozen war elephants — across the Alps and into Italy, where he won several blistering victories against the panicking Roman armies before supply problems forced his retreat. Siddig exudes gravitas and poise as the genius general, and the film benefits from surprisingly robust production values and excellent directing from Ed Bazalgette, who would go on to direct for Doctor Who and Netflix’ The Witcher.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 masterpiece, along with Ben-Hur (1959), did much to rejuvenate the sword-and-sandals genre, and remains endlessly watchable for the towering central performance by Kirk Douglas as the slave who starts a rebellion against Roman rule. But a cast including Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, and Peter Ustinov turn the film into a who’s who of mid-century Hollywood, in a time before CGI rendered such shots a trivial matter. Spartacus literally includes a cast of thousands for some truly epic battle scenes. With Kubrick brought in shortly after production began when the previous director was fired, it was the biggest project the filmmaker had taken on up to that point. He cleaned up at the Academy Awards, taking home four Oscars and enough kudos to propel him into the first rank of film directors.
This 1963 epic remains one of Hollywood’s legendary productions — lavish, long, ludicrously expensive, and so drawn-out in the filming that Richard Burton had time to leave the set, film The Longest Day, and come back without missing anything. But there’s no denying it looks dazzling even today; and the drama, of course, is heightened by the fact that, as it was filmed, the leading man and lady were falling in love in real life. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play their scenes as Egyptian queen Cleopatra and Roman general Mark Antony with added frisson as the movie plays out, and Burton’s Shakespearean manner disappears almost shot by shot, as the penny drops that stentorian emoting is not necessary on film in the same way that it is on stage. The pace is glacial, but Cleopatra is worth it, if only to see two of the finest actors of the twentieth century at the very top of their game.
Though it was plagued by production problems, Ridley Scott’s 2000 epic has a richly deserved status as the finest film about Rome to see the light of day. Russell Crowe is on form as Maximus, a tough-as-nails general who survives an assassination attempt at the hands of the immoral emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who becomes a gladiator and seeks revenge for the death of his family. If the premise is by-the-numbers, the realization is not. Top-notch cinematography is matched by the fine performances of the principals, including Richard Harris as the dying emperor Marcus Aurelius and Connie Nielsen as Maximus’ old flame Lucilla, to say nothing of a fabulous final performance from Oliver Reed, who died during filming (the ending was reworked and Reed’s face was digitally superimposed onto a body double for some scenes as a result). Winning five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, it’s no surprise that a sequel has been on the cards for some time, and is currently in production.