Popular Imagination vs Historical Reality: What does HBO’s Rome Reveal about the Practice of History?
By Mirela Kadric
University of Sydney Undergraduate Paper (2015)
Abstract: Historical films have been subject to controversy and criticism within the discipline of history upon the rise of popular interest in new and innovative forms of historical representation. Indeed, the five to seven years between the release of Gladiator (2000) and Rome (2005-7) saw an upsurge of historical films focusing on the ‘epic’: the spectacular, monumental and immersive periods of history that exude a mix of historical reality and speculative fiction. This paper is as much about history and popular imagination as it is about historical films. It argues that it is not historical accuracy or film as historical evidence that matters, but the historical questions and debates that film raises for its audience and the historical profession regarding the past it presents and its implication on history. Such questions and debates base themselves around the extent to which filmmakers are able to interpret history through images and what kind of historical understandings it hopes to achieve. This argument is asserted through the case study of HBO’s Rome, chosen due to its unique ability in igniting historiographical debate by presenting history as an accident, thus allowing audiences to question the outcome of historical events.
Introduction: Historical films have been subject to controversy and criticism within the discipline of history in recent decades, particularly as film began to influence popular imagination on historical events. The release of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) instigated an overflow of literature and public interest in antiquity and the historical ‘epic’ that had remained dormant for thirty-six years – the last successful historical epic about ancient Rome was Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Historians noted that the sudden return of the epic began to shape conceptions of history, whilst debate regarding the usefulness and validity of film in representing history emerged. Thus, the ability of film to attract a wide range of audiences and influence public perceptions of historical events alarmed most historians, as Gladiator set the tone for historical films and shows in the decades following its release.
As a result, historians and filmmakers have sparred over the representation of history, with both attempting to defend their way of writing and presenting history to the public. Historians claim that filmmakers distort history by presenting an often inaccurate, fictionalised and sensationalised view that fails to align with ‘what actually happened’. Likewise, filmmakers criticise historians for writing history that does not take into consideration popular imagination and contemporary issues. For filmmakers, the history presented by historians is restrictive, dense, and provides no room for a proper visualisation of historical events. Often based around historical reality and popular imagination, this tension intensifies the more society turns to film for historical information instead of academic historical literature.