The Image of Ancient Rome in the Cinema
By Carl Mora
Film-Historia, Vol. 7 No.2 (1997)
Introduction: The ancestral memory of the Roman Empire has been the most persistent theme defining European civilization. From this vanished political entity of antiquity the modern divisions of Western, Central, and Eastern Europe have drawn much of their governmental, military, religious, and cultural heritage and practice. It is not surprising then that Europe repeatedly has sought to reestablish a semblage of «the glory that was Rome»-beginning with Charlmagne’s Carolingian Empire in the 6th century A.D., continuing with the Holy Roman Empire in the 8th century A.D. (which lasted until 1806), and followed by the various renaissances beginning in the 14th century which sought to recuperate the scattered classical literary traditions. The culmination of these neo-Roman restorative trends came with the 20th century Italian and German Fascists’ overwrought attempts to recreate what they perceived was the martial spectacle and power of ancient Rome.
The constant conflicts among the competing nation states that eventually succeeded the Roman Empire periodically gave rise to attempts to reestablish the «Pax Romana» under the hegemony of one or another European state. First was Spain in the 16th century seeking to establish religious and ultimately political control over the rest of Europe. Then in the 17th and 18th centuries, France, England, Austria, Russia, and their allied lesser powers warred to maintain the «balance of power»-in other words a strategy to prevent anyone great power from establishing itself as the «new Rome.» This was followed by Napoleon’s effort to establish the predominance of the French Empire over all of Europe, an empire whose political and military symbols were deliberately patterned after those of Rome.
Mussolini boasted to the Italians that he would restore the greatness of the Roman Empire (even though his expansionism perforce was limited to Libya, Ethiopia, Albania, and, disastrously, Greece). Nazi Germany under Hitler made a much more serious attempt to bring Europe under one imperial rule although he called himself «fuehrer» and not Kaiser, or Caesar, as his imperial forebears did. And after World War II, the Soviet Union, successor state of the Russian Empire whose monarch was also referred to as Caesar (Czar), imposed its hegemony over half of Europe. In our day, with these historical attempts to reestablish a universal European order bloodily played out and discredited, Europe has been moving cautiously to a voluntary unity based on the common interests of the various countries.