“The Fall of the Roman Empire”, 1964 – The Final ‘Sword and Sandal’ Epic

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The amazing cast of The Fall of the Roman Empire. From left to right; Anthony Quayle, Mel Ferrer, James Mason, Stephen Boyd, Alex Guiness, Sophia Loren, Christopher Plummer, Omar Sharif and John Ireland

The Fall of the Roman Empire was produced by Samuel Bronston, directed by Anthony Mann (el Cid) and filmed in Spain in the winter and spring of 1963. This is my favorite movie of all time, so I will say emphatically that I cannot be objective about it. I simply love it too much. The film not only has an outstanding international cast, incredible performances and an amazing musical score by Dmitri Tiomkin (that pipe organ introduction still gives me goose-bumps each time I hear it!), but it also features some absolutely stunning set pieces, realistic Roman battles, Roman architecture and stunning scenery. The Fall of the Roman Empire is actually a favorite flick among Roman scholars because it truly captures the mood and tone of Gibbon’s dark second century Rome brilliantly. Gore Vidal, in his book Palimpsest, says “the only ‘accurate’ Roman film that I’ve ever seen- in appearance that is- was The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” In fact historian Will Durant was on-set to offer his advise about the script. I’m sure he received a handsome paycheck to overlook some of the historical inaccuracies. Nevertheless this film is as close as you can get to a true depiction of Roman Imperial life in the 2nd century A.D (at least, Hollywood-style).  It is full of quandaries and conflicts, none of which are truly resolved. In my opinion it is a film that reflects a Stoic perspective on life itself.

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It contains an assorted of characters, all of which are flawed in one way or another; the philosophic emperor (Alex Guinness) who is idealistic and grand yet the father of a profligate son (Christopher Plummer); the daughter of the emperor (Sophia Loren) who is beautiful yet bitter and hateful towards her mother; the imperial son (Commodus) who not worthy of his father but who ends up ruling anyway, only to discover he is the bastard son of a gladiator (Anthony Quayle); the emperor’s advisor (James Mason) who is a philosopher himself despite being born a slave; and finally the Roman General (Stephen Boyd) who is loved by the emperor, his son and his daughter because he is a moral man and the ideal stoic Roman, but yet is a tacit force in the downfall of the Empire he so loves. Livius is powerless to control the events taking place around him, or at least unwilling to take power himself until no options are left. He walks away from his chance to become Emperor…twice! But after we see the kind of conniving and evil men in the political machine, do we blame him for giving up and walking away at the end of the film? Its questions like these which make me watch this movie over and over again. Besides that, it perfectly captures the Roman world teetering on the brink of the “Time of Chaos”, which would take place at the end of the Severan era around 235 AD, 55 years after the death of Marcus Aurelius.

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To summarize the movie, Marcus Aurelius, played superbly by Sir Alex Guinness, prefers to have the morally upright Livius to his corrupt son Commodus.  Livius is in love with the Emperor’s daughter, and his is good friends with the Emperor’s son as well. The Emperor reveals his desire to name Livius his heir to become the next Emperor. Livius i stunned – if not downright shaken by the prospect. He reveals this turn of events to none other than Commodus himself, who has just arrived from Rome. The revelation sinks into Commodus and produces taut friction between the two men. A stunning chariot race is the product of this tension which careens down the road of a steep mountain and alongside a rushing river. It has the shades, of course, of the famous “Ben-Hur” race, especially seeing Stephen Boyd in the mix, but this time he is driving the team of white horses!

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However, when the Emperor dies abruptly due to poisoning by a scheming haruspex (Mel Ferrer) without officially declaring Livius to be his heir, Livius is presented with a huge quandary. Should he stage a takeover and risk an ugly civil war and at the same time marry the woman he loves, keeping her from the King of Armenia? The risk is paramount: he would be doubted as the legitimate heir. ‘Caesar must be undoubted Caesar,’ he gently tries to explain to his love, Lucilla. So instead Livius does the only thing left for him to do. He presents the logical successor to Marcus Aurelius – his friend and already co- emperor Commodus – the the troops as Caesar. This ensures continued peace in the Empire and the undying loyalty of Commodus as well. Unfortunately, this choice comes at a huge cost; Livius loses Lucilla to an Armenian Prince (Omar Sharif) and he puts the power of the Empire into hands of the unstable and reckless Commodus. As Livius states: “There are only two possibilities, and both are impossible. That is a dilemma.”

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Once Commodus has consolidated his power, a battle of wills ensues between his favorite General – our Livius- and Timonides (James Mason) and the Senate concerning the settlement of German tribes within the territory of Rome and offering them citizenship. Timonides and Livius win the Senate, the barbarians are settled, but Livius’s defiance of Commodus’ wishes create a discord between himself and Commodus, especially with Lucilla’s scheming as well.  Livius is banished to a lonely patrol back up in the Danube. Commodus softens his stance after a while as a plague ravishes Rome. He invites Livius back to his confidence and construes upon him the task of quelling an Eastern Rebellion (which Livius will soon find out has been instigated by Lucilla herself, along with her Armenian husband (Omar Sharif). Livius is relectant (once again) to accept a position of high authority and tells Commodus, prophetically, “Do not give me this power.” Commodus disregards the warning, fatefully.

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After defeating a rebellion of the Eastern Provinces, Livius himself turns his army against Rome and ends up confronting his friend Commodus in a riveting hand to hand javelin battle in the midst of the Roman forum. Commodus dies while embracing Livius in a touching reflection of their earlier friendship. Livius rescues Lucilla from the flames of the burning sacrificial pier and carries the dead Commodus with dignity (and ease) up the steps to the Roman altar. Livius is offered the chance to be Caesar once again by the same men who had rallied around Commodus. In one of the best last lines of any film, Livius turns to them and says, “I don’t think you’d find me suitable, for my first official act would be to have you all crucified.” Fin!!! Queue the dark pipe organ music again as the camera sweeps upwards, following the billows of smoke carrying the ashes of Germanic people being burned alive at the stake, their cries of “Wotan Avenge Us!” echoing the revenge Germany will have in the final days of Rome starting with the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD and ending when the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 AD, the beginning of the end for the Western Roman Empire. How can you not love this?

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The Fall of the Roman Empire is dark movie with a pessimistic, albeit epic ending. The marketing for the film was astounding – see here for all the many beautiful slides and booklets! It even had a theme song performed by none other than 1960’s top crooner Johnny Mathis. Because of its tone, or perhaps because of audience burn-out for Roman epics (the ‘Cleopatra” hullabaloo had just been released less than a year before), it failed at the U.S. box office, although it did well internationally. Another perspective is that the film was was released in April of 1964, just shy of five months after the John F. Kennedy assassination. A dark epic about the slow decline and collapse of Western Civilization did not serve as a good touchstone for the American public at this point!

With his blond locks and blue eyes, Stephen Boyd really does look amazingly handsome in this film. Boyd is more muted than usual in his screen performance here and some people would probably say it is a dull performance (compared to Messala in Ben-Hur) but I disagree. I have always loved Stephen’s quiet, thoughtful and powerful performance in this movie. Maybe it’s the blond hair; maybe it’s the regal way he carries himself in the Roman armor (has anyone ever looked more handsome in a Roman helmet?); maybe it’s the soft, gentle way he speaks; or maybe it’s the way he seems totally in awe of Sophia Loren. He has some truly tender and touching scenes with Italian super-star Sophia Loren. They look absolutely stunning together on screen as well.

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The script has its good and bad moments. Most of the actors were displeased, especially coming at the heels of some really excellent epic scripts like “Lawrence of Arabia”. Some of the dialogue reminds me of ‘George Lucas speak’. In fact some of the lines (especially in the romantic scenes) are used almost verbatim in Star Wars- Attack of the Clones and Star Wars – Revenge of the Sith. And the fact that you have Alec Guinness being about as Jedi as a Roman-philosopher-Emperor could be, I can’t help but see Star Wars-isms in The Fall of the Roman Empire as well.

It’s very fitting that The Fall of the Roman Empire, which essentially ended the ‘sword-and-sandal’ film era, would be the tacit inspiration 36 years later for Ridley Scott’s Oscar winning epic Gladiator, which kick started a whole new era of ‘sword-and-sandal’ movies in the 2000’s like The 300, Alexander and TroyGladiator seems to owe more to Spartacus than The Fall of the Roman Empire, but nonetheless it is a fitting conclusion to the amazing inspiration of The Fall of the Roman Empire. 

Enjoy Turner Classic Movie’s airing of The Fall of the Roman Empire on January 17th, 2019!!!

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“The Fall of the Roman Empire, Film and History”

As a prelude to TCM playing “The Fall of the Roman Empire” next Thursday I thought I would let everyone know there is a fantastic critical essay book out there, “The Fall of the Roman Empire”  – Film and History, edited by Martin M. Winkler.  There are still copies available on Amazon.com.  This is an amazing collection of critical essays about Ancient Roman, reviews of the film by Anthony Mann, Edward Gibbon excerpts, and cinema and historical photos all relating to this era of Roman History.  This came out after the release of “Gladiator” in 2000 to give due credit to this amazing film, which is so readily and tragically forgotten. I really hope people get to enjoy seeing it for the first time on TCM next week! Spread the word!

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with Anthony Mann

Stephen Boyd with Ronald Reagan and Gloria Talbott in “The Wall Between”, 1962

I still haven’t been able to track “The Wall Between” down. Considering Ronald Reagan was in this, you wouldn’t think that would be too difficult, but it seems to be!

If anyone has a line on where I can view it, please let me know!

https://stephenboydblog.com/2017/04/21/stephen-boyd-and-gloria-talbott-in-the-wall-between-january-1962/

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with Ronald Reagan, 1961
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with Gloria Talbott

Sword and Sandal – Thursdays in January on TCM

http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/1459193%7C0/Sword-and-Sandal-Thursdays-in-January.html

HOLY CAESAR!! Alert to all Stephen Boyd fans. Finally TCM is airing my favorite all time movie The Fall of the Roman Empire this month on January 17th. Ben-Hur is airing again on January 3rd as well! Strap on your Roman helmets and get ready to watch some amazing peplums. Maybe FOTRE will gather a few more fans….!

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The Gods and Religions of Rome

Happy Solstice, or Sol Invictus Day! Sol Invictus, or Invincible Sun, was a popular Roman solar deity which gained preeminence in the later Roman Empire courtesy of the Emperor Aurelian (and before him the Emperor Egalabalus). In fact, the first Christian Emperor Constantine initially was a worshiper of Sol Invictus as well. The ‘radiant crown’ of Sol Invictus was transferred to Christ and remained popular with Constantine and Christian Roman emperors thereafter in iconography and coins. December 25th (which used to be the solstice) was the celebratory date of Sol Invictus, and this date is still popular today as it was adopted by Christianity in the late 3rd century. So what other deities and religions were popular during the Roman Empire?

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The Emperor Probus ( 276 to 282 AD) and Probus, with Sol Invictus on the reverse

The Imperial Cult

The best way to start describing this cult is by the word Apotheosis, which means to become divine, or to reach divine status. In the summer of 44 AD, after the death of Julius Caesar, a great comet was seen in the sky. Using this imagery his adopted son Octavian (soon to be Augustus) developed a divine cult for Julius Ceasar, including temples and priests. Octavian himself was divi filius (“The son of a deified one”). This concept was common in Greek and Roman religion. Hercules himself had joined the Gods on Olympus after his death, and so did Julius Caesar. Octavian, when he became Emperor (or Princeps of the Republic), allowed cult temples made in the honor of his own divine genius. This genius, or divine spirit, is what was worshiped around the empire. Empresses too and the offspring of the Emperor would also be considered worthy of divine status. Of course this made sense to people in the empire, especially in the East. The Emperor ruled over most of the known world, and anyone wielding such power would of course be divine!

So when Messala tells Ben-Hur that the Roman Emperor Tiberius is God, the “only God” for the power he wields on earth, this is exactly what he means! Failure to worship the Gods of Rome (including the Emperor) is what led Christians into trouble in the 1st and 2nd centuries because lack of worship meant that this person (or persons) did not want to reap the benefits of divine favor to the Empire. It was considered political and social defiance. The Jews, because of their ancient religion, were exempt from worshiping the Imperial Cult and Roman Gods, but the Christians were not.

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“He is power, real power in Earth” Ben Hur, 1959
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As Sheik Ilderim in Ben-Hur says, “The Divine Tiberius is merciful as always!” Photo taken in London.
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rare Roman marble relief from the Julio-Claudian period, circa early 1st century A.D. It depicts the Emperor Tiberius standing before a seated Genius (a manifestation of his divine side) with the goddess Concordia between them as intermediary.

Some megalomaniac Emperors took this imperial cult worship a step further and declared themselves actual gods (not just the worship of their genius) while they were still alive. Such notables would be Caligula (whose memory was condemned), and Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius, who posthumously regained his divinity during the reign of Septimus Severus.

The modest and humorous Emperor Vespasian summed this all up best, I think, with his death-bed exclamation: ‘Vae, puto deus fio’ – ‘oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god. ’ (Suentonius, The Twelve Caesars)

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“You could have become a God,” Commodus tells Livius in “The Fall of the Roman Empire”

The Olympians

The traditional Gods of Ancient Greece were still the most popularly worshiped Gods in the Roman Empire. Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, Hera, Artemis, Mars and the like all had temples throughout the Empire in various manifestations. Many Middle Platonist‘s rationalized the worship of many Gods or the properties of God in their various guises or manifestations of the one God Logos, or Truth (see Plotinus, for example). The world is a place teeming with variety, so it makes sense that several aspects of Nature and Human Emotions and Passions are represented by the many Gods of Olympus.

Messala and Ben-Hur remember childhood games when they evoke “Down Eros, Up Mars!” to each other. Mars, or Ares, the God of War, would surely have appealed to a militaristic solider like Messala, as he was the god of strife and war. However it seems Eros, the god of sensual love and desire, could perhaps be the God Messala really wants to summon here?

 

Messala also offers praise to Jupiter before the chariot race begins. “The Roman people worshiped Jupiter more extravagantly and more frequently than all other gods; therefore, the worship of Jupiter is almost monotheistic. Jupiter was the most powerful and the greatest of the gods so much so that the Romans sometimes called him Jupiter-Optimus-Maximus. The Romans considered Jupiter to be the protecting entity of their empire, and they even believed that Jupiter would provide them with the greatest empire the world had ever seen.” (https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Roman_Culture/Roman_Myths/Jupiter)

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Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill in Rome from The Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964
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“Hail Jupiter and give me victory!” says Messala in Ben Hur, 1959

Stoicism

Philosophy could sometimes take on the trappings or demeanor of religion as well. If we take Marcus Aurelius, played so brilliantly by Alec Guinness in “The Fall of the Roman Empire”, and his Meditations, you can get a glimpse of some of the amazing philosophies of the late Roman Empire. Stoicism, founded by Zeno in Athens in 313 BC, matched the Roman mentality very well. Stoics were seekers after the Unknown God. They believed in Fate and Providence (hence they paid particular heed to Oracles and Omens). The God of the Stoics was the Creator of all Things, and obeyed the ‘natural law’. They valued above all things moderation, courage, justice, prudent self control and practical intelligence. Reason and living in agreement with Nature were the basic tenants of Stoicism. There is a world weary tone in The Meditations, but also hope behind the belief of a coherent, ordered, purposeful Universe.

If then, whatever the time may be when thou shalt be near to thy departure, neglecting everything else thou shalt respect only thy ruling faculty and the divinity within thee, and if thou shalt be afraid not because thou must some time cease to live, but if thou shalt fear never to have begun to live according to nature—then thou wilt be a man worthy of the universe which has produced thee, and thou wilt cease to be a stranger in thy native land, and to wonder at things which happen daily as if they were something unexpected, and to be dependent on this or that. (Meditations, 12.1)

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Alec Guinness as the stoic philosopher Emperor Marcus Aurelius in The Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964

Mithras

Last but not least we come to the mysterious Roman cult of Mithras, which displayed the Persian trappings of the ancient Zoroastrian God from Persia. The worship of Mithras seems to have come to Rome around the reign of Domitian and continued well into the 3rd century. Like the Eleusinian and Isis mystery cults, Mithraism also maintained secrets oaths and a hierarchy of ascension (seven ‘grades’ of initiation – Crow, Numphus, Solider, Lion, Persian, Heliodromus and Father). The grades of this hierarchy mirrored the regiments and order of an army, so this religion because popular with the Roman troops, especially on the Danube and the Rhine. The cult excluded women. It revolved around Mithras and his ritual sacrifice of a bull (called a tauroctony), as the giver of ‘seed’ and procreation. This sacrifice and be seen in many statues around the Roman world, showing Mithras (wearing a Persian cap), holding a knife and wrestling the bull. Out of the blood from the bull ears of corn or trees can be seen growing from the ‘gift’ of this sacrfice. Because of the celestial aspects of Mithraism, equinoxes and solstices also were important dates of worship including, once again, December 25th, the day if the solstice during Roman times. The ceremonies for Mithras were mostly performed in caves or underground chambers, many of which can still be seen today.

Religion is only obliquely referred to in “The Fall of the Roman Empire”. For example, the Emperor is a Stoic; his Greek counselor Timonides is a quiet Christian (he can be seen wearing the “chi-rho” symbol around his neck). However, our hero Livius’ religion is never revealed. In my opinion it’s most likely that Livius would have been a follower of Mithras. As a solider on the Danube, Livius would have been exposed to this religious sect and most of his troops were likely followers as well. Most telling of all, Livius’ friend, the Emperor Commodus, was “admitted among the adept and participated in their secret ceremonies.” (Franz Cumont, the Mysteries of Mithra).  Once the cult of Mithras found favor in the person of the highest imperial power it truly gained a reputation and following from the common solider to the highest aristocracy.  “Until the downfall of paganism the aristocracy remained attached to the solar god that has so long enjoyed the favor of the princes.” (Franz Cumont, the Mysteries of Mithra)

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Livius, a likely follower of Mithras in “The Fall of The Roman Empire”

“…Mithras had a militant character, always ready for battle, prepared to assist others in their fight for good and to bring them victory. One of the grades in the mysteries was called Miles, the soldier. The Mithraic cult was a form of military service; life on earth a campaign led by the victorious god. It is therefore little wonder that soldiers of all ranks in the Roman legions, orientals included, felt the lure of Mithras. Observance of the cult guaranteed assistance to all who pledged their lives to the Roman eagle. The assurance of divine aid on the battlefield, the military discipline and the taking of an oath as part of that discipline, were very important factors in the spread of the Mithras cult and its official recognition.” (http://www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/Religions/iranian/Mithraism/m_m/pt3.htm)

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Mithras Head in the London Museum
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The Tauroctony, London Museum

So Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to everyone out there! And from me, a nod of recognition to the Ancient Gods – whether it be Sol Invictus, Mithras, Augustus or Zeus – as Messala would say, “In the Name of All the Gods!”