The Romans in Popular Culture

Hi Everyone, I hope you’re ok;

Despite the last few days of beautiful sun, and it has been gorgeous. I’ve been definitely feeling the summer coming to an end with these chilly mornings and darker nights. I’ve also noticed a few things happen at this time of year while I get used to the winter approaching. One, the woollies appear and trust me I’ve a jumper for every occasion and two, I watch much more TV; Strictly’? Yes! but also a good old film on a dark rainy night can’t be beaten, big bag of crisps being essential.

So, as a result, I got to thinking about what films I might want to watch and that, in turn, reminded me of when I first arrived on Hadrian’s Wall. Stick with me I’m getting to the point…

Within weeks of starting on the World Heritage Site I was fortunate enough to work with a great team of people at Tullie House Museum in Carlisle helping out as they redesigned one of their galleries which was ultimately to become the Roman Frontier Gallery. If you’ve not been to Tullie House just go, it’s great, not just because of the roman history as that’s just the starting point for a turbulent history of a border city and a wealth of stories. But it’s in a lovely city, good shopping, imposing castle and beautiful cathedral.  Oh and Tullie has a cracking café with fab’ cake, personally tested and re tested, Yum.

Tullie Curator Tim Padley and I had a ‘top 10’ well ‘top 5’ moment while writing some text for the gallery, so that’s what I thought I’d share with you… I can’t say that either of us is Claudia Winkleman or Barry Norman but see how they compare with your list.

Tim Padleys 5 – The Curator’s Choice

Tim Padley, Keeper of Archaeology at Tullie House, gives a selection of films and books that he has enjoyed over the years.


Spartacus (1960) Although this can be seen as a modern story clothed in Roman garb, it does give a good impression of what the Roman world looked like. It is directed by Stanley Kubrick who I always felt made films that were a delight to look at.

Cleopatra (1963) Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and grand sets all on the big screen. This was both the glamour of the 1960s and the spectacle of Rome.

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) This deals with the death of Marcus Aurelius and the succession of Commodus. It may have been a flop at the box-office, but I like it because of some of the set-piece scenes. My favourites are when Marcus Aurelius reviews the envoys, giving a great impression of the enormity and diversity of the Roman world. The scenes at the end show the size and bustle of Rome.

The Life of Brian (1979) As a member of the Monty Python generation I would like this. I particularly like the ‘Romans Go Home’ scene.

Gladiator (2000) Although the background is similar to The Fall of the Roman Empire, the film has a very different feel. It shows the sheer number of people who lived in Rome, particularly when they fill the Colosseum.


Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling (1906) On the Great Wall deals with defending Hadrian’s Wall against the Picts.

I Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935) by Robert Graves, These are classics. They show the life of the early Emperors and their families and are based on the Roman historian Suetonius.

Count Belisarius (1938) by Robert Graves, Here the author uses later sources to show what the Roman Imperial system had become when it was transformed into the Byzantine Empire.

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe (1954) Rosemary Sutcliffe used historical and archaeological information to fashion an adventure for children. However, the eagle found at Silchester is not a Legionary standard, but the mystery of the lost Legion remains.

The ‘Falco’ novels by Lindsey Davis (1989 onwards) This series of Roman detective stories gives a good impression of life in Rome and in Roman Britain. However, many of the preoccupations are modern ones projected onto ancient Rome, including package tourism!

The ‘Roma sub Rosa’ novels by Steven Saylor (1991 onwards) The series deals with the fall of the Roman Republic. It covers all of the main events and shows that the decline took place in the space of a single lifetime.

Johns Top 5

When bringing together the film clips used in the gallery it became apparent that virtually no other historical period carried quite the impact that Rome holds in popular culture.

As Tim Padley highlights in his personal selection of films and books exploring the Roman Empire, there are miles of film and forests of pages dedicated to exploring Rome’s conception, conquests and eventual decline, you cannot help wondering why. Why is it such a draw for modern day storytellers?  In the dark ages, the legacy of Rome became the stuff of myth; buildings and technology that were seen as the work of giants and gods. What place does Rome hold with society today?

When you look initially at Rome in twentieth and twenty-first century culture, it seems to be a spectacle of power, awe and respect. This is very much the way we have used the film clips in the gallery, ‘borrowing’ their well understood myth of opulence, extravagance, opportunity, progress and ultimate power. However, as you look closer at how these ancient characters are used in modern stories something equally as straightforward but far more telling appears. 

No matter what film we choose they all explore the idea of ultimate power and more pointedly that ultimate corruption or loss of connection to the real world and real people. So often in these films either an individual or an ideology is tested against the establishment and proves that good always finds a way to foil corruption to win the day. In this way, Rome has become every government, political system and foreign country around the world. The slave, the discredited idealist or persecuted religious group becomes the new way of thinking. That new way will eventually prove the old aggressor false, realising its wrongs and highlighting its faults.

In Gladiator and especially Spartacus, we see one man take on the system represented by the Empire and winning either physically or morally. The line ‘I am Spartacus’ coming to imply solidarity against a system.  Quo Vadis and I Claudius explore ultimate power and its ability to corrupt. Even the classic comedies of Carry on Cleo and Up Pompeii rely on Rome to provide the ‘straight man’ as they pick holes in the establishment.

So it’s no surprise really that Rome still echoes around the world in popular culture. Its universal recognition as the ultimate Empire and embodiment of the establishment will always fit the contemporary world’s need to push against politics, power and identity. It is the Cold War and ‘Big Brother’ all wrapped up into one. It is modern enough to be relevant and far enough in the past not to insult directly. 

So, 2000 years on, someone will always be thrown to the lions, contests will always be gladiatorial and the prologue? Well, I doubt that will never be finished!

 My Five Fave’ Films? …

Spartacus, THE roman spectacular and a symbol of solidarity against the system

Cleopatra, opulence, luxury and political shenanigans helped along by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton

Carry on Cleo, using a lot of the props and costumes from Cleopatra the Carry On team rib the empire for all its worth with great visual and linguistic gags along the way.  I read that the use of the name ‘Marcus & Spencius’ in one scene did not cheer up the well-known high street store with a similar name and that legal action was threatened.

The Eagle, the full image of mud and occupation on the front line. One person sets out to prove the Empire’s rules wrong and reclaim personal honour. The film has some of the best opportunities to explore the idea of the non-Roman. A very strong resonance is seen with world events at the time of its filming.

Up Pompeii, purely because it exploits every popular view of Romans to the maximum degree, every idea we have of Rome is taken as a starter for a joke and pokes a finger in the eye of whoever is seen as in charge.

These are just two of the Curator’s Cut or further reading information sheets you’ll find in the Roman Frontier Gallery, all of them full of those fascinating snippets that there just wasn’t the room for on the wall, so even if it is a cold and rainy autumn day, go visit the gallery, pick a few subjects and settle into a sofa.

Now you don’t hear that said in many exhibition spaces!

See you soon


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