Classical Studies Newsletter, Volume IX, Summer 2003

Classics and the Cinema
By Prof. Ruth Scodel

I was not the obvious person to teach "Classics and Cinema." One would expect the instructor to be a Roman historian with a liking for kitsch and a knowledge of the craft of film, while I am a Hellenist who had never seen Ben Hur or Cleopatra and had never taken a cinema course. As an overworked single mother, I don't go to the movies much. The idea of such a course had been in the air for a long time, I was looking for a place to make a contribution in classical civilization, and nobody with better qualifications was available. Jon Solomon's The Ancient World in the Cinema was there to tell me what films existed and enough about them for me to decide whether they were worth considering for the course; the Internet Movie Database could tell me quickly whether I could obtain them. There aren't many scholarly studies of the subject, but Solomon provides basic facts about historical accuracy, and the works of Maria Wyke and Martin Winkler are full of helpful ideas.

So I took on the job, the first year looking at the Roman epics, Greek mythological fantasies, and filmed tragedy, this past term confining the class to films about ancient Rome. It turned out that I did have certain intellectual resources that made me a pretty good fit for the topic. Coming from a movie-loving family, even if I'd never seen either Liz Taylor or Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, I was familiar with both of them in plenty of other roles and was ready to think about the relationship between the star and the part. Growing up among Jewish intellectuals, I was prepared to think about Borscht-Belt humor in comedies set in ancient Rome and about the Jews as writers, producers, or directors of films about the origins of Christianity. Over many years of novel-reading I had read Sienkiewicz' Quo Vadis, Fast's Spartacus, and Lagerkvist's Barabbas. I have a decent working knowledge of twentieth-century history. And I was prepared to learn and think a lot.

Every week there is a showing on Wednesday evening, starting with Cabiria, an Italian silent film of 1914 that is set during the Second Punic War and celebrates Italian imperialism. The film's "Temple of Moloch" scene is important in the history of cinema, and invites some discussion of the problems of interpreting the evidence for Carthaginian child sacrifice. We end with Life of Brian, where the Roman Empire, standing for the British Empire, is both mocked and celebrated. The scene where a centurion catches Brian writing an anti-Roman graffito and makes him correct the Latin and write it a hundred times captures perfectly and hilariously how the place of Latin in British elite education defined the equation.

In the end, the students have learned an eclectic assortment of things. They have a very basic knowledge of Roman history. Many have learned for the first time that the early history of Christianity is full of questions. They have read some Plautus, Petronius, and Marcus Aurelius, as well some Gibbon and two plays of Shakespeare. They have seen the development of film technique, and maybe gained more respect for writing, acting, and directing in the absence of fancy special effects. Most important, they understand better that history, even of the ancient past, is not a fixed story, but is subject to endless re-imagining and revision in response to the needs of the present. The Rome of a 50s epic depends visually on the fascist use of ancient Roman imagery. In its opposition to Christianity, it is Communist. But in its luxury and splendor, it evokes a characteristically American fear of our own decadence. I hope that after thinking about the movies' changing Rome, they will think more and with more depth about the popular culture in which they are so immersed. 

Index of Topics

  • Letter from the Chair
  • Power Lunches in the Eastern Roman Empire
  • Poem by Anne Carson
  • Classics and the Cinema
  • Pallas Lecture
  • The Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS) 
  • Upcoming Department Events
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