Martin Winkler (ed.), The Fall of the Roman Empire: Film and History. Malden: Wiley- Blackwell, 2009. Pp. xvii + 334, incl. 26 black-and-white plates. ISBN 978-1-4051-8223- 2. UK£60.00.
Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa
Had there been courses on Classics and Film when Fall of the Roman Empire (Mann 1964, henceforth FORE) was released, tutorials would have been very lively, especially in South Africa. They still can be, since this, unlike its successor Gladiator, is an ideological movie. Then, the debate would inevitably have been about apartheid and racial integration, especially in South Africa (race is explicitly, if to some extent anachronistically, mentioned in the film), now it would revolve around issues of xenophobia (by comparison with District 9 perhaps), immigration, identity, self and other, ‘civilisation’ (for which read urbanisation, acculturation, and deculturation), and development. Lurking darkly below the surface lie the controversial opposition of humanism to Christianity, and our current cultural obsession, orientalism.
One of the clearest differences between Gladiator (Scott 2000) and FORE (Mann 1964) is that while the former aimed primarily to entertain, the latter was more concerned with politics. To paraphrase Winkler (p. 3), Ridley Scott focused on the action of the Colosseum, but Antony Mann preferred the Forum. FORE emerges as a history lesson on the fall of the Roman Empire. One reason for this may have been that FORE was much more strongly influenced by Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (henceforth HDF) than Gladiator. It is therefore appropriate that, in addition to an essay on Gibbon by Winkler (pp. 145-73), the present book includes an excerpt from this famous work, although its brevity (pp. 262-70) and the lack of footnotes will not satisfy the Gibbonian purist. In a brief discussion of the film by its director, which Winkler reproduces in his collection (pp. 130-35), Mann acknowledges (p. 132) the inspiration of a concise edition of the HDF. Like Gibbon, Mann identifies the death of Marcus Aurelius as the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire; he too, as the Englightenment historian did, notes that the progressive policy of integrating the barbarians within the empire was a feature of the reigns of the Antonines; both writer and director aimed to convey a sense of the melancholy of history (the ending of the film is pessimistic); both were primarily inspired by humanism rather than the Christian faith (pp. 135, 168, 171f.). This is not to say that Mann is a historian of comparable stature to Gibbon. He writes, for example, that 'the Christian movement . . . . was a minor incident in the greatness of the Roman Empire' -- hardly the most judicious observation, when the prior and subsequent history of Europe is taken into account, regardless of one's own individual beliefs, and definitely a view that Gibbon himself would not have shared.[] In fact Mann's analysis of the causes of the collapse of government in the Roman Empire -- Christianity, the barbarian invasions, harsh taxation, bribery of the army, and the corruption of the Roman people and Senate -- are all taken uncritically from Gibbon. In much the same way, Mann makes use of a soundbite from Will Durant's Caesar and Christ to explain his film ('A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within') -– a broad generalisation that Mel Gibson applied with equal facility to the breakdown of Mayan culture in Apocalypto (2006), even though the later film seems to take a very different view of the relationship between paganism and Christianity.[] Mann’s rather simplistic rejection of religious belief is clear from his statement: ‘I believe in the nobility of the human spirit . . . I don’t believe in anything else’ (quoted on p. 135) and his film is clearly a reaction to preceding overtly Christian films such as Quo Vadis (LeRoy 1951), The Robe (Koster 1953), and Ben Hur (Wyler 1959). Gibbon is more ironic and indirect; after all the Enlightenment historian begins his HDF only after the the time of Jesus and the early Church, whereas he treats in full Mahomed and the rise of Islam; the notorious Chapters 15 and 16 of HDF fit uneasily into the context of the work; and during his life Gibbon held a number of conflicting positions with regard to the Christian church and religion.[] It is to the credit of Allen Ward that he has noticed (pp. 60, 80-84) the severe distortions that Mann’s exclusion of the rather inconvenient persecution of Christians under Marcus Aurelius has caused to the credibility of the film’s historical authenticity.
Perhaps the weakest part of FORE is the narrative and characterisation of the revolt of Sohamus and Lucilla. No such revolt of the eastern provinces of the empire occurred under Commodus, as Drijvers (pp. 122-29) points out in this collection. The rebellion is not adequately contextualised and the compression of events at this stage in the film, together with the hackneyed Western-film style of the action, make the incident ludicrous. Even worse, perhaps, given the ideology of the film, Sohamus is depicted as a stereotypical oriental, to the extent that he and Lucilla even share an Arabic tent as the headquarters of their campaign. In order to understand the way the East is depicted in the film, some understanding of North-American anxieties about the Soviet Union during the Cold War is necessary. This is provided by Peter Rose’s chapter, ‘The Politics of The Fall of the Roman Empire’ (pp. 241-61). The logic of the film appears to be that the inclusion of other peoples in a family of nations is fine, provided that it is done under the political and economic hegemony of the enlightened, liberal West. Presumably, mutatis mutandis, Marcus Aurelius would have held much the same view.
The present book follows much the same formula as Winkler's 2004 publication Gladiator: Film and History[]: critical appreciation of the film, studies of its historical accuracy and background, commentary on the modern political context, copious black-and-white stills, and selections of ancient source material. Curiously, there is no direct comparison between Gladiator and FORE.[] The editor has clearly made an effort to avoid repeating material from the earlier book and from his other writings.[] For example, the selections from the chief ancient sources (Cassius Dio, the Historia Augusta, and Herodian) here focus on Marcus Aurelius rather than on Commodus as before. Nevertheless, there is almost inevitably some overlap between the two books (FORE is discussed on pages 169- 72 of the 2004 volume, for example, and Gladiator is, of course, frequently discussed in the 2009 collection). There is also some repetition within the present book - - to take but one instance of this, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are covered by both Allen Ward (pp. 77-80) and, more extensively, by Diskin Clay (pp. 89-101). All this suggests that there is room for a more tightly organised book-length comparative treatment of Gladiator and FORE. For the present, however, students will have to mine these two rather discursive books for pertinent information.
The ideas of Marcus Aurelius play a more important part in FORE than in Gladiator. Allen M. Ward shows (pp. 77- 80) that FORE makes extensive use of the thoughts of the philosopher-emperor, especially his doctrine of the brotherhood of man, the notion of being a citizen of the universe, the value of compassion, indifference to death and physical suffering, and the importance of education. After the death of the emperor, his freedman, Timonides, continues to uphold these values in the face of opposition from barbarians and Romans alike. The film even offers an explanation of how the Meditations survived Commodus - - his sister Lucilla saw that they were conveyed to the library of Augustus on the Palatine in Rome. In Chapter Three, 'Marcus Aurelius: The Empire over Himself' (pp. 89- 101), Diskin Clay, explores the ancient evidence for Marcus Aurelius' philosophical upbringing and his attempts to achieve 'empire' over himself, and suggests that he was a Christian manqué (p. 100).
FORE takes great care to represent the interiors of Roman buildings correctly. In Chapter Two, 'History, Ancient and Modern, in The Fall of the Roman Empire (pp. 51- 101), Allen M. Ward notes that the palace of Commodus owes much to archaeological discoveries at Pompeii, that the senate is shown as it was in Diocletian's time, and that the forum and the Capitol, despite minor mistakes, were used in subsequent documentaries of Roman history because of the accuracy of their reconstruction. However, Ward also points out the historical mistakes in the film, such as the misgivings of Marcus Aurelius about the ability of Commodus to rule the Empire, the story that Commodus was not his true son but the offspring of a gladiator, the disgrace of Faustina, and the rebellion in the East during his reign. At least these work reasonably well in terms of the dramatic action of the film, as do other historical incidents that are transferred from other contexts to this time period. These include the speech of Claudius concerning the admission of Gauls to the Senate, the inability of Pertinax to find a heart in a bird he had sacrificed, and the settling of Germans within the borders of the Empire. But Ward also notes that other errors, such as the movement of troops from all over the empire to an audience with the emperor in Germany, the excessive prominence given to the cavalry in military engagements, the emergence of Commodus from the giant hand of Sabazius, and the age, appearance, gladiatorial role, family relationships, and death of Commodus in the film, were all dramatically unnecessary. Eleonora Cavallini weighs in to this debate with a chapter questioning Commodus' claim to be so very bad after all ('Was Commodus Really that Bad', pp. 102-116).
In the not-too-distant past there were very few publications on Hollywood films relating to ancient Greece and Rome. Students of the genre had to rely on their own critical powers to construct their analyses. They will no longer enjoy such creative freedom, however, as books and articles on the field have proliferated at a furious pace within the past quinquennium. Whereas Winkler's 2004 book on Gladiator concluded with a short three- page list of recommendations for further reading (pp. 207-209), the bibliography of the present work extends over an eye-watering twenty-one pages (pp. 305-26). The present book adds some useful perspectives and controversial points of discussion to the pile.
[] Gibbon writes in the first sentence of Chapter 15: 'A candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman Empire.'
[] Will Durant, The Story of Civilization. Vol. 3: Caesar and Christ (New York 1944) 665.
[] On the complexity of Gibbon’s religious views, see J. G. A. Pocock, 'Gibbon and the Primitive Church' in Stefan Collini, Richard Whatmore, and Brian Young (edd.), History, Religion and Culture: British Intellectual History 1750-1950 (Cambridge 2000) 48-68, and D. Womersley, ‘Gibbon’s Religious Characters’, ibid., 69-90.
[] Martin M. Winkler, Gladiator Film and History (Oxford 2004). Reviewed at: http://www.classics.ukzn.ac.za/reviews/05- 11win.htm
[] For this, Winkler refers to Marcus Junkelmann, Hollywood's Traum von Rom: 'Gladiator' und die Tradition des Monumentalfilms (Mainz 2004) 337-46.
[] Such as Martin Winkler, 'Cinema and the Fall of Rome', TAPhA 125 (1995) 135-54, which Winkler refers to on p. 2, n. 2.
[] For a refreshingly different perspective on Classics and Film, both Greek and Roman, see Kirsten Day (ed.), Celluloid Classics: New Perspectives on Classical Antiquity in Modern Cinema -- a special edition of Arethusa 41.1 (2008).