Rome Reconsidered
Written by Denis Faye


There might be gaps in our knowledge of ancient Rome, but the parts we do know about, we know a lot about, thanks to the Roman love for the written word. 

While there is no shortage of modern research to check out, Stamp suggests going right to the classics such as Livy, the poet Virgil, and, especially, Cicero. “Cicero was a lawyer and he pleaded a number of murder cases that would be a tremendous place to start because they’re full of nitty gritty details about how Rome works,” says Stamp. “I used them all the time when we were making the HBO show.” 

You can track down most of ancient texts online at The Perseus Digital Library, where you’ll find them in English and the original Latin, if you’re fancy like that. 

Stamp also suggests the site LacusCurtius, another massive database of old texts on the Roman world, including William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, an extraordinary resource “because it tells you everything you need to know about any Roman custom or etiquette, the day-to-day. That’s a very, very helpful resource.” 

If you’re trying to make your epic spec on ancient Rome to 100 percent accurate, you might be wasting your time, according to historian Jonathan Stamp.

“Trying to understand something from that long ago is a sort of wild goose chase,” explains the noted documentarian and producer of the HBO series Rome. “It’s a bit like going to the Roman ruins themselves. Go see an aqueduct, for example. There are whole stretches of aqueducts that are perfectly preserved with arches striving across the fields, and then suddenly, boom, there’s a break, a big hole for a mile or two where there’s nothing at all, and then suddenly it restarts again. That’s a visual metaphor for what we know about the Roman world. There are bits that are whole and graspable, but there are bits that are just… missing.”

Of course, this hasn’t stopped many a visionary filmmaker from playing in that world. In Stamp’s opinion, it’s a good thing actually, because it gives us a chance to inject our own vision into those blanks. “It gives the contemporary artist space to work with,” he says, “which I think is inspiring.”

Stamp spoke with Technically Speaking recently from his home in London about Hollywood’s approach to ancient Rome. In his opinion, we’ve done a great job so far, but we’re overlooking all kinds of great, dramatic history, including some especially juicy business involving beheading, a rather unpleasant use for molten lead, and some other assorted “good, original Roman sadism.”

What does Hollywood get right about ancient Rome?

The swagger. I imagine that would have been one of the definitive sensations of being exposed to the real thing, its brashness and its immense self-confidence and its glamour as well, in the sense of it being, in the true sense the word, “superficial.” It was all about appearance and the conveying of strength and will through the way one appeared. They weren’t shy about violence. They strutted their stuff and that is an aspect of the ancient Roman phenomenon that is regularly conveyed on the screen.

To our eye, Rome would appear to be hideously sadistic. It’s very, very violent culture. You always have to be careful if you judge ancient cultures in your own contemporary terms, but I think that Rome, as indeed all cultures of the ancient world of that time, would have blown your head off if you were a modern visitor because of the casualness with which violence was inflicted on large numbers of people, particularly the slave population. Slaves could be treated in any way that their masters saw fit. There were few restrictions on that.

When Rome is depicted onscreen, there’s a lot of blood all over the place. The Starz show, Spartacus, even has the title Blood and Sand. That’s not unrealistic. So swagger, blood, steel, in the sense that there were a lot of swords and steel around the place, people using the sharpened version to kill each other with and the burnished version to drink out of. Those sorts of things, clichéd as they may sound, tend to appear over and over again in depictions of Rome onscreen. They all have very strong basis in fact.

What does Hollywood get wrong?

It’s very important to appreciate that Rome understandable in some ways, but it’s also virtually alien – and I mean that in the outer space sense. It’s so different, and I think the thing Hollywood gets wrong is by transporting modern sensibilities and ideas back into the past.

Perhaps the single biggest mistake is that it’s virtually impossible for us, particularly if you live in the West and are a consumer or creator of Western culture, not to see things through a Judeo-Christian lens, as they call it. It’s so fundamental to the way our society is constructed, to the understanding of morality, for example, or the way in which we understand the body and what’s appropriate for bodies to do and not do and how they should be viewed in public and ways we should dress. Also, the ways we should behave toward each other and what constitutes cruelty and what constitutes kindness, what constitutes goodness and what constitutes evil.

If you run through the fundamental aspects of a civilization, almost every single one of the ones we live by would be alien to an ancient Roman, because they lived in a world that crucified Jesus, but didn’t know anything about him. Of course, that’s an exaggeration because there’s a whole genre that concerns the emergence of Jesus into the world – the Ben-Hurs [Screenplay by Karl Tunberg] and the Quo Vadis’ [Screenplay by John Lee Mahin and S.N. Behrman & Sonya Levien], but the ancient Roman world itself, at least until the very end, was not really touched by the teachings of Jesus because it didn’t really know them.

So that’s a long way around of saying that’s what we get wrong. We can’t think Roman. It’s totally unnatural, so Hollywood can get the appearance right, the blood, the swagger, the dress, the look, but it’s almost impossible, or certainly far more challenging, to get inside the tactual Roman psyche.

So you’re saying Caligula wasn’t such a bad guy?

Well, it’s all relative, isn’t it? But, no, even the Romans appreciated that particular strain of Roman emperors. Tiberius, most people don’t know his name, gets up to some unspeakably perverse things by modern standards – any standards, actually. He pulls up alongside Caligula, but Caligula’s even worse. And, of course, Nero, he’s not exactly a spring chicken when it comes to profanity and evil. The post of Roman Emperor conveyed such unimaginable power on an individual that it was almost impossible for a person not to be corrupted by that. In Caligula and Nero’s case, they both became bonkers. They started out with promise and with expectation surrounding them, but they both went off the rails. I can’t say, even in jest, that Caligula was a good guy.

What are some of the movies and TV shows that you like?

Well, I’m going to toot my own trumpet and say, for obvious reasons, there were parts of the HBO show, Rome, of which I worked as a consultant and produced, that got certain details of Roman life right – or as accurate as we could. And we really did expend a lot of energy on trying to make them right. So the look and certain details achieved a degree of authenticity that set a new benchmark, but it’s a bit invidious for me to say that because that really is tooting my own horn.

It’s more interesting to talk about a couple other shows. In some ways, the Starz show, Spartacus. It’s incredibly kitsch and stylized. It takes that Greek movie, 300 [Screenplay by Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon] to a new degree and it’s very, very violent and there are several aspects of it that I don’t particularly enjoy, but I have to say, it captures something of the high camp that probably was an element in the whole Roman gladiatorial spectacle.

I’m not sure that it doesn’t do that in some ways more effectively than a lot of shows that have attempted to do gladiators. Here’s an obvious example. Compare it to that breakout Ridley Scott movie Gladiator [Screenplay by David Franzoni and John Logan and William Nicholson], which was certainly a game changer in that it reintroduced the historical epic. I loved that movie, I enjoyed it enormously, but it’s got a sort of seriousness about it, which I suspect was lacking in the actual Roman gladiatorial spectacle. The Starz show captures that element, that ethos.

But my favorite movie is the Kubrick movie, Spartacus [Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo]. It’s an obvious choice in a way because it’s a really interesting combination of things. First of all, it’s been remarked upon many, many times that it’s a movie about a contemporary situation, the ‘60s. It was two writers, the writer of the novel and the writer of the screenplay, Howard Fast and Dalton Trumbo, respectively, both of whom were victims of McCarthyism and black listing. Given Kubrick’s predilections at the time, it’s absolutely about the power of the individual to resist the power of the state. So it’s talking about the ‘50s and ‘60s, but it’s using an historical mirror to reflect that story.

There’s not that much known about the original Spartacus – and changing the details from the original story in order to set up a better parallel between the past and the present is a strength of the film because it comes with a great well of genuine feeling – immensely powerful feeling -- especially in the case of Dalton Trumbo. He couldn’t get his name on the credits. He eventually basically had to be outed as the writer by its star, Kirk Douglas.

It gives the movie life, gives it a soul, but at the same time, Kubrick being Kubrick, has gone to lengths to create a movie that dotted with fabulous detail and feel as well. He didn’t get everything in that movie authentic necessarily, but he got some wonderfully memorable visual vignettes, and he got some performances that feel as though they draw off the real Roman past.

So that alien aspect is a good thing when handled by the right artists because they can infuse our paradigm into the past easier.

Yes, that’s absolutely true. It gives you a degree of latitude the work in the unknowability of the Roman past.

Particularly Hollywood movies, that’s what we’re talking about. Now, America and Rome – it’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché like most clichés because it’s so true – the comparison between the two worlds is endlessly fascinating and endlessly worth examining and thinking about, the ways in which those two empires are alike and not alike and the ways in which the Founding Fathers modeled themselves on the Roman republic are in some cases absolutely explicit. They were rooted in the Roman classics. They understood them, they knew them, they could quote them. Their whole sense was that they were a culture created in throwing off an oppressive monarchy –in the American case, the British monarchy, in the Roman case, the Etruscan kings. There are a million ways that the Roman example does hold up a mirror up in a particularly revealing way to America. It’s one of the reasons why the Roman experience is revealing and intriguing to American audiences.

What would you most like to see in a movie about Ancient Rome?

Although I understand the commercial restraints, I’d like to see a show that dares to go outside the normal timeframe. For commercial reason, you have to make movies about the people the audiences have heard of. That tends to be why everybody sticks to Caesar, Cleopatra, Mark Anthony, Pompeii, Caligula, Nero. That’s kind of it. Maybe if you stretch a bit, Constantine, but if you start moving out of that territory and you start doing Romans that no one has heard of, then you’re going to get yourself into a spot of trouble because people won’t back you for commercial reasons.

That’s a pity because there are areas of Roman history that are fascinating but have never been mined. If I were going to come at something, I’d try and choose one that has particular resonance or could be made to have particular resonance for the present. I’d make it about a couple of brothers who were both called the Gracchi. They were a bit like the Kennedys, Jack and Bobby. There’s certainly a way of writing up their story that would make people say, “Oh, I get it!” It’s a brilliant story of revolution. It’s got everything you want! Blood and violence and sex and intrigue, and then one of them has his head chopped off, and the skull is opened up, and lead is poured inside it. That’s a good bit of original, Roman sadism for you.

What they were trying to do, originally, was effectively a liberal agenda, to empower people who had never been given a voice. It’s a story that definitely has resonance in this contemporary world. Even now, if you just look at the tragedy that’s playing itself out in Libya, that’s an eternal story, the story of the attempt to give voice to the voiceless and the way the forces of autocracy and oppression either falls in the face of that or clamps down with great brutality. That’s basically the story of the Gracchi.

The other thing that’s interesting about the story of the Gracchi is that, very often, you have to have a revolution that fails before you have a revolution that succeeds. That’s the moral of that story.

Also, they tell a story of when Rome really first starts to motor, before it’s top dog, and most stories tend to be about Rome after it’s already top dog.

What advice do you have to a writer embarking on a project about ancient Rome?

Watch what’s been made, because the literature is voluminous. If you were rich enough, you might be tempted to not only start reading like crazy, but get on a plane and go see the Mediterranean world. That’s all great fun, and I’m all for it, but if you’re new to the game, you’ll get lost in all that literature. You’ll get swamped. You’re much better off starting by looking at what’s been made and seeing what the repetitions are and what the holes are, then saying to yourself, “That’s something I really love. I’m going to do an update. I’m going to take the spirit of that movie and redo it.” Or identify a gap and say, “I don’t think there’s been an out-and-out romance, or a cop show, or a medical drama” or any of the other genres you might obviously go to, and say, “I reckon I could create one of those in ancient Rome.”

You could use, as your filter, what’s already on screen. And once you have that, you’ve got to start reading. You’ve got to start reading the right sources. That’s a stupid, obvious thing to say, but it’s true.