The Best Roman Epics on Film

From Cleopatra to Spartacus, ancient Rome has yielded some legendary film classics.

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The Best Roman Epics on Film

The February 11th release of The Eagle is right around the corner! Directed by Kevin Macdonald from a script by Jeremy Brock, the upcoming film adaptation of the 1954 historical adventure The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff is set in the second century AD, and tells of a young Roman officer’s search to discover the truth about the disappearance of his father’s legion in the north of Britain. 


The Eagle stars Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland and Mark Strong, a Focus Features release. To get into the spirit of the times, we’re taking a closer look at the Best Roman Epics on film!


Spartacus (1960)


Stanley Kubrik’s sprawling epic starring Kirk Douglas & Laurence Olivier recounts the tale of a slave’s a violent revolt against the decadent Roman empire. Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a rebellious slave purchased by Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), owner of a school for gladiators, where young men are raised to be brutal fighters for the entertainment of corrupt Roman senator Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier). Spartacus turns on his owners and leads the other slaves in rebellion toward glorious freedom, at the expense of the political dominance of those in command of the Roman empire.


Gladiator (2000)


Among the more recent films to deal with the Roman Empire, Gladiator was a smash success upon its 2000 release. Maximus (Russell Crowe) is a powerful Roman general, loved by the people and chosen as successor to the aging Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. This enrages the Emperor’s son Commodus, who kills his father and orders the death of Maximus. After enslavement and torture, Maximus journeys back to Rome as a gladiator to confront his arch-rival and claim his rightful throne.


Caligula (1979)


The immensely controversial film Caligula details the graphic, shocking and undeniably tragic story of Rome’s most infamous Caesar, Gaius Germanicus Caligula. Viewers are taken firsthand through the violent methods that Caligula employs to gain the throne, and the subsequent insanity and debauchery of his reign. There are various versions of the film, ranging from the heavily-edited 90-minute version to the legendary 160-minute "hardcore" version which leaves virtually nothing to the imagination.


Ben-Hur (1959)


One of the greatest film epics of all time focuses on a rebellious, revenge-seeking Israelite prince crossing paths with Jesus Christ. This 1959 version of Lew Wallace’s best-selling novel, won 11 Academy Awards in recounting the tale of Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), who lives in Judea with his family during the time of Christ. Ben-Hur’s childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), an ambitious Roman tribune, turns on his friend when Judah refuses to aid the Roman Empire, framing him for murder and imprisoning him. At three and a half hours it’s a sprawling, huge epic, but the now-legendary chariot race, staged largely by stunt expert Yakima Canutt, was one of the greatest moments of suspense in him history. Ben-Hur’s Oscar haul included Best Picture, Best Director for the legendary William Wyler, Best Actor for Heston, and Best Supporting Actor for Welsh actor Hugh Griffith as an Arab sheik. 


Julius Caesar (1953)


An examination of the relationship between political power and personal conscience, Joseph Mankiewicz’s traditional Julius Caesar (1953) is a gripping, well-rounded tale far ahead of its cinematic time. Marlon Brando delivers a powerful performance as Mac Antony, with an intense physicality that recalls his work in A Streetcar Named Desire. Director Mankiewicz astutely balances the Renaissance view of Caesar as a power-obsessed, corrupt tyrant destined for punishment with less than subtle indications that his murder may have been under false pretense. Miklós Rósza’s stunning score serves the film brilliantly, an all-star adaptation of Shakespeare”s classic about Julius Caesar”s assassination and its aftermath. 


Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)


A relentless satirical harpooning of biblical films and religious intolerance is the focus of this Monty Python favorite, focusing on a Jew in Roman-occupied Judea. After joining up with an anti-Roman political organization, Brian is mistaken for a prophet, and becomes a reluctant Messiah in a tale that pokes fun at the fanatical followers of the faith. A tongue-in-cheek attack on religious zealotry and hypocrisy finds the Pythons at their very best, bringing equal chuckles to blind faith, virgin birth and more.


Cleopatra (1963)


Chronicles the struggles of Cleopatra VII, the young Queen of Egypt, to resist the imperialist ambitions of Rome, Cleopatra stands as one of the final films that Hollywood ever produced with grand-scale intention. Actual sets built out of marble, authentic locations and a budget that was 22 times that of the original prediction ($2 million became $44 million by the end) made for a breathtaking cinematic experience, helped in no small part by Elizabeth Taylor, who simply owned the lead role in a performance of regal beauty (those costumes!) that cemented a Hollywood legend. Despite being a critical failure, it won four Academy Awards.


The Eagle stars Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland and Mark Strong, a Focus Features release.  You can watch the trailer here; The Eagle – Trailer