"Are we like late Rome," asked social critic Camille Paglia, "infatuated with past glories, ruled by a complacent, greedy elite, and hopelessly powerless to respond to changing conditions?" As you mull the answer to that question, raise your gladius and drain the Etruscan vino from your amphorae: It’s time to commemorate the fall of the Roman Empire.
It was today in 476 AD when the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, was deposed by the Germanic warlord Odoacer and the Roman Empire drew its final wine-soaked breath. Here’s a look at some of the best movies set in what was certainly one of the most violent and depraved times in human history (notwithstanding our own, of course).
Penthouse founder Bob Guccione filmed scenes for this controversial 1979 Italo-American biographical drama about the famously debauched emperor who somehow managed to clear his head long enough to become the first Roman commander to invade Britain since Julius Caesar did a century before.
Joaquin Phoenix proved to be a perfect slimeball as the Emperor Commodus (which I’m guessing means "toilet" in Latin) in Ridley Scott’s exuberant epic also starring Russell Crowe as Maximus, a general who became a slave, who became a gladiator, who defied an emperor, who won an Oscar for Best Actor.
Remember those movies before the era of CGI and huge battle scenes required filming thousands of extras—and not just a small crew of computer programmers? It was like if you had to film an epic, the production itself had to be, well, epic. Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas in the title role, was one of those films. For the battle scenes, 8,000 extras were pulled in from the Spanish infantry to play Roman soldiers. Ingeniously, Kubrick recorded 76,000 spectators at a Michigan State vs. Notre Dame college football game shouting "Hail, Crassus!" and "I’m Spartacus!" for the climactic scene.
For her portrayal as the Egyptian queen and lover of Roman general Mark Antony in Joseph L. Mankiewicz 1963 epic, Elizabeth Taylor won the Guinness World Record for "Most Costume Changes in a Film." (She had 65 different outfits.) Perhaps if she had spent less time worrying about her clothes, she wouldn’t have lost the Battle of Actium. But then we wouldn’t get to see her commit suicide by snakebite.
"If I could just unravel this just a little bit more, and just get a little closer to the answer, then…I would go to my grave a happy woman," said Hypatia, considered to be the first significant female figure in the world of mathematics, as played by Rachel Weisz in Alejandro Amenábar’s 2009 Spanish English-language film Agora. Accused of instigating religious tension, Hypatia was killed by a Christian mob. Later, her legacy among Christians changed and she became a symbol of virtue. In her 1986 book Women Philosophers in the Ancient Greek World: Donning the Mantle, Kathleen Wider argues that her murder marked the end of Classical antiquity. Stupid, stupid evil mob!
In one of the many awesome scenes in Mel Brooks’s 1961 comedy classic, Bea Arthur plays a government worker at an unemployment insurance collection window. It was an inspired casting choice: Not even the dumbest gladiator would dare mess around with Maude.