The Roman Empire Through Film

Art L. Spisak

Missouri State University

Last summer (2004) I created and first taught a film course on the ancient Roman Empire. I've taught it several more times since, each time with adjustments that were brought about by my own research and experience with using film in teaching. My biggest challenge has been to understand the genre of film, especially historical film: that is, what filmmakers try to do with a film on a historical topic, and what the common practices are in creating and producing such a film. I found that without such an understanding of the intent and common practices of filmmakers the most serious and scholarly attempts to use film in teaching will fall short.

In my presentation I shall detail several key practices of filmmakers through selected scenes from the films I use in teaching my film class on the Roman Empire (films used include: Quo Vadis; Ben Hur; Spartacus; Fall of the Roman Empire; Gladiator). Also I shall suggest how best to work with the historical inaccuracies that result from these practices. By way of illustration, I give here just one practice common to filmmaking: films on historical topics will inevitably contain "contemporary overtones." (Winkler's phrase). The result is that the story and theme of the film, although in an historical setting, will be as much a reflection of and comment upon the filmmaker's own culture as on the time period depicted. For example, the film Gladiator is as much a treatment of the present day American empire as it is of the late second century Roman Empire (see, e.g., Cyrino and Rose in Winkler's Gladiator: Film and History).


Back to 2006 Meeting Home Page