The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)
The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is about the beginning of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, highlighting the transition from the bright Empire of Marcus Aurelius to the corrupt reign of his son Commodus. The film was directed by Anthony Mann. It was a disaster at the box office, bankrupting the producer Samuel Bronston. Edward Gibbon’s classic history text The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) was a source of inspiration, and the movie opens with a quotation taken from Gibbon’s book. The film takes place in late antiquity, during the latter part of the second century. The Fall of the Roman Empire depicts the policies of Aurelius as more ethnically unifying than they really were, while at the same time portraying the Roman Empire under Aurelius and Commodus as more racially divided than was historically the case.
The Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) is shown as cosmopolitan philosopher king who dreams of a universal Rome that is inclusive to all peoples. The movie portrays him as wishing to extend citizenship to all Roman subjects and also to the states on the edges of the Roman world. Marcus Aurelius in the film is a unifying figure that seeks to have people of all races and ethnicities brought together into a harmonious “New Rome.” The actual historical figure of Marcus Aurelius is more complex. Although he indeed expressed cosmopolitan sentiments through his stoic philosophy in his Meditations, as an Emperor of Rome during a particularly war-filled reign he was far more coldly pragmatic than the film shows him to be. Stephen Stertz describes how Marcus’ reputation for cosmopolitanism has outgrown his actual deeds. Aurelius was a Stoic who wrote about an idealized “city of the world,” but his policies were not greatly different from that of other Roman emperors (Stertz, 435). The ethnically and culturally unifying picture of Marcus Aurelius drawn in The Fall of the Roman Empire definitely has a basis in the writings of the philosopher emperor, but ultimately it does not accurately depict the policies he implemented.
The universally accepting image of Marcus Aurelius, unfortunately, has little basis in his actual decisions. Marcus Aurelius was willing to take ghastly retributive actions against specific tribal groups such as the Quadi and Iazyges that he saw as inherently violent and dangerous (Pitts, 50). In contrast, the film has Marcus Aurelius as a great champion of peace who insists that the German leader be captured so that peace can be negotiated. The movie repeatedly emphasizes that Marcus Aurelius is committed to peace and acceptance, even when his subordinates question his decisions. This portrayal creates an image of Marcus Aurelius as a great champion of equality and cooperation in order to draw attention to the “what could have been” after he is assassinated in the film.
The movie portrays the African and Asian parts of the Empire as less Romanized than the European portions of the Empire. This stands out in particular when Marcus Aurelius welcomes a procession of dignitaries from all corners of the Roman Empire. Dignitaries from the provinces of Africa (modern day Tunisia), Judaea (called Palestine by the Romans), and Syria are dressed in exotic garb and have darker skin than the other dignitaries. In contrast, dignitaries from European parts of the empire such as the Spanish provinces or Gaul are shown to be fully Romanized. This image of Rome gives the impression that it was more “racially” divided than it actually was during this period. In fact, attempting to impose a modern concept such as race onto the Rome of late antiquity is anachronistic. For example, Roman soldiers did not serve in their local region, but were sent to postings that could be on the other side of the Empire and did not fight in ethnically segregated units (Whittaker, 198). The film shows soldiers wearing and carrying exotic or local equipment of their home provinces in the procession overseen by Marcus Aurelius. The dignitaries from Judaea, Africa, and Syria stand out especially as un-Roman in appearance.
The movie shows ethnic difference to be the cause of the split between the eastern and western halves of the Empire, in a rebellion against Commodus by his eastern subjects. The eastern legions, even at first, stand aside while the western legions do battle with “Persia.” This racial division in the Roman legions did not exist historically. One particular example from the reign of Commodus (played by Christopher Plummer) shows that Roman culture penetrated Africa and Asia as well as Europe. Commodus, as he is actually portrayed in the movie, made many ego-driven changes to the Empire such as naming the city, army units, and months after himself (Speidel, 109). Archaeological evidence demonstrates that these penetrated swiftly to the frontiers of Rome in Asia. The only archaeological evidence found for real use of the renamed Commodian months was discovered along the Euphrates in modern day Iraq, and by local auxiliary units as well as the legions (Speidel, 110). This shows that Roman culture reached out into the non-European parts of the Empire to an extent that the movie does not seem to reflect.
The Fall of the Roman Empire is effective in communicating its desired message: showing how the Emperor Commodus’s reign began the slow decline of the Roman Empire. It shows Marcus Aurelius’ policies as more cosmopolitan and inclusive than they actual were, while at the same time showing the ethnic division of the Roman Empire to be more striking and tied to modern ideas about race than it historically was. The chaos and “auctioning of the emperorship” that followed the assassination of Commodus are masterfully portrayed, but the movie does not succeed in portraying ethnicity and social status in the Roman Empire in any kind of nuanced way.
Stertz, Stephen A. "Marcus Aurelius as Ideal Emperor in Late-Antique Greek Thought." The Classical World 70, no. 7 (1977): 433-39. doi:10.2307/4348712.Speidel, M. P. "Commodus the God-Emperor and the Army." The Journal of Roman Studies 83 (1993): 109-14. doi:10.2307/300981.
Whittaker, Dick. "Ethnic Discourses on the Frontiers of Roman Africa." In Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity: The Role of Power and Tradition, edited by Derks Ton and Roymans Nico, 189-206. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009.
Pitts, Lynn F. "Relations between Rome and the German 'Kings' on the Middle Danube in the First to Fourth Centuries A.D." The Journal of Roman Studies 79 (1989): 45-58.
Sword and Sandal
Late Antiquity (c. 150-500)