Empire Strikes Back: Six Films to Commemorate the Fall of Rome


"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).

Caligula (1979)

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.

Gladiator (2000)

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.

Spartacus (1960)

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.

Cleopatra (1963)

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.

Agora (2009)

"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!

History of the World, Part I (1981)

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.

On The Verge: Piano Gladiator ELEW & His Rockjazz

When a new genre of music is created, the world takes notice. And in Eric Lewis’ case, the music industry took more than notice; with the creation of his own style of rockjazz, he’s set the scene on fire in a controversial, stormy way that suits the man and the brand that he is. Merging rock guitar techniques with pop and ragtime, and putting it all on the piano, Lewis – known onstage as ELEW – has outraged the jazz world, while awing the pop/rock world – especially when he plucks and beats the heck out of the piano’s insides and shield. Outfitted with armor on his wrists, a suit, and a vivacity that defies merely sitting on a piano bench, but standing and rocking the entire time he plays, ELEW’s renditions of pop/rock anthems and original songs on his latest record introduce a sound we’ve never heard before. As ELEW prepares for his Friday, Nov. 9th show at Le Poisson Rouge, he shared what gets him high, his favorite distraction, and when he played for a legendary celeb.

You’ve said you’re a huge fan of comic books, and that you feel superhuman and supercharged when you get on stage. What are some pre-show rituals you’ve adopted that you’ll use for Friday’s show? 
My workout. I call it "the ninja run.” I run through the forests of Riverdale with my hand in front of myself, like a karate chop or shark fin. I take on the ninja mindset. Like characters in Mortal Combat who intersect physical performance with the supernatural, I try to make my mind as much a weapon as my body. Before I play, I focus on combining my passion with precision, and vice versa.  

In a day, how do you balance working out with practicing and performing?
If I’m not exercising, I’m practicing, and if I’m not doing that, I’m playing chess. Or watching Dexter. I used to practice the piano all the time, but now the game has shifted to a perceptual challenge of the mind, and sometimes it’s very exhausting and painful. The improvisation I learn from chess is similar to what I use in music. But in chess, I’m going against someone. In music, it’s subjective to the audience, and it’s ultimately a battle with myself. But there’s such an ecstasy to it. 

Is there anything else in your life that gives you that kind of ecstasy?
Women. I’m a hopeless romantic. Being an entrepreneur, too. I have so many ideas for what I want to do next, so the power of creating those ideas is euphoric.

You crawl into the piano, plucking the strings like a guitar and beating the wooden case like a drum. Do you actually play these instruments?
I do know how to play the drums, and I played the violin for a year as a kid, but when I noticed horn players putting different objects in horns to make different sounds. I started experimenting. The things I do aren’t new exactly, but how I do it is. My way of branding it is. Alexander Graham Bell didn’t invent the telephone, but he invented the way he branded it. With my music, you want to dance to what’s going on. Playing without a piano bench and wearing armor – no one’s ever done that. I love to move, and I really want to rock.

You toured with and opened for Josh Groban for most of last year. What’s the #1 lesson you learned from him?
To be elegant. Touring with him made me re-record my latest record. Hearing the elegance of his presentation, delivery, and repoire made me want to re-record my music with that kind of professionalism. He’s so in touch with his brand, style, what it is he’s adding to the music scene, and he knows how to nurture it and present it elegantly.

What’s your ideal vision of the future for ELEW?
I want to be legendary. Yanni, Herbie Hancock, and Elton John, all wrapped into one. Hard-hitting. I want to collaborate with Lil Wayne and dubstep artists, and be like John Carpenter was to Halloween – write the story and the music for my own horror film. I want to create a comic book movie, a music festival. And I’d like to improve my chess game.

You’ve cultivated a fanbase of celebrities like Hugh Jackman, Obama, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Tell me your favorite celebrity story.
Al Pacino asked me to perform at a party he was having at his house. I started playing a crazy rhythm people could dance to, and suddenly Al jumped on one side of the piano next to me and started to play. I put his fingers on some of the notes as if we were playing "Heart and Soul," and we started playing and rocking together. 

Al Pacino