BMCR 2002.01.08

The Ancient World in the Cinema (revised ed.)

, The ancient world in the cinema. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. xix, 364 pages : illustrations ; 27 cm. ISBN 0300083351. $22.50.

The cardinal rule of reviewing books is that one should review the book at hand and not make vague gestures towards the book that the reviewer would write, if only s/he had the energy, commitment, and leisure to do so. I am about to break this rule.

Let me begin by noting the book’s virtues, which are three: First, it is exhaustive to a dizzying degree. Solomon mentions every film one could possibly think of, and many more that one could not, having to do with the ancient world.1 Substantive discussions are generally reserved for films that made either an artistic or cultural impact, but this is a necessary and reasonable restriction. It is refreshing, further, that he does not limit himself to “important” or “artistic” films: Bob Guccioni is in here along with Shakespeare, and Solomon takes each genre — even the cheesy ones — on its own terms. Second, Solomon writes with a witty turn of phrase (though this becomes cloying at times; see below) and a light touch. And third, the book lovingly considers how authentic or inauthentic various films’ scripts, sets, costumes, etc. are. In support of this analysis, the book’s 205 b/w photographs of film stills and ancient artifacts are easily the most useful feature of the book. If, then, your questions are: 1) What films have been made about ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, Persia, or adapted stories from the New Testament or the Old Testament? 2) How much did they cost to make and what scandals accompanied their production? 3) Which of them lays claim to some historical accuracy? 4) Which could, by any stretch of the imagination, be seen as possessing artistic merit? Then this is the book for you.

If your questions go deeper than that, you will find yourself disappointed. The first edition (1978) must indeed have broken new ground; but since then, a good deal of interesting work has been done on film and the classics (and films of the classics),2 and “revised and expanded” edition has not taken that work into account. Though Solomon suggests in his preface to the second edition that in light of this work it is “impossible” to look at films of ancient Rome without engaging them as commentaries on our own lives and historical moments, little analysis of this sort will be found here.3 This is doubly frustrating, as the book is filled with unexplored possibilities for cultural analysis. The first chapter, for example, reveals that the early film industry was inextricably meshed with classical myth and history; why? How did the sweeping epics of DeMille and his cohort reflect our relationship to Europe in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s? What was it about the 1960’s that spawned so many “muscleman epics” and at the same time virtually closed down on a thriving industry of historical epics? Why have there been so few attempts to film the Iliad ? Why has no tragedy of Aeschylus ever made it to the big screen? What was it about the 70’s and 80’s that left so little interest in the ancient world in the U.S.? (Here Solomon’s definition of ancient films as a “genre” fails to serve him, as the ancient mythological epics were being replaced by the space-age epics of Lucas and Spielberg — not so much a change of genre as of venue.) And so on. One thinks of the cultural critique done by film theorists like Susan Jeffords and Robin Wood and finds it lacking here.4 The new edition remains a catalogue, little more, sprinkled with witty commentary and some useful information, but uninformed by cultural critique, modern theory, or social analysis.

That said, I have a few comments about the book per se. In organizing his material, Solomon has taken a reasonable approach, with separate chapters on Greek and Roman History, Greek and Roman Mythology, the Old Testament, the New Testament, the rest of ancient East, Ancient Tragedy and the Satyricon, Comedies, and the “Muscleman Epics.” One could, of course, quibble with any of these distinctions as discrete categories, but the fact is that we have to divide the films up somehow, and these divisions work well enough. The groupings are not organic in that a prolific director like DeMille produced films that fall into several different chapters. As a result, the book does not facilitate a study of DeMille’s career. It also makes it difficult to trace the effects of one film on another, since the directors of these films were not thinking in these categories: an epic of Greek mythology could easily influence an epic of Roman history, and so on. Solomon has, however, tried to mitigate these disjunctions with numerous allusions to discussions elsewhere in the book.

More serious, however, is his decision to discuss the films in the History and Mythology chapters not in the chronological order of film production but in the chronological order of the subject matter. Thus we start the “Films of Ancient Rome” with Cabiria (1914), then move to The Siege of Syracuse (1962), then, in this order: Carthage in Flames (1960), Mussolini’s Scipio L’Africano (1937), Hannibal (1960), Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), the five (!) other versions of the Spartacus story, dating from 1909-1919, Sins of Rome (1954), The Slave (1962), then on to the various versions of Julius Caesar’s life, dating from 1909-1963. (One gets a sense from this brief list of the breadth of Solomon’s research. That discussion of these films takes place in 15 pages (47-62) is also a fair indication of the brevity of most of the analyses.) It is of course reasonable to discuss all the films on a given topic together, since directors are likely to be responding to earlier versions of the same subject. But the chronological leaping makes the construction of any sort of film history all but impossible.

I also have some historical quibbles. One of the audiences of the book, clearly, is the film student who may know the work of Kubrick but not know anything about the ancient sources. And generally this student will be well-served by Solomon’s research into the ancient artifacts that were used as models for ancient sets. (Indeed, perhaps the best way to read this book is simply to skip the text and read the captions to all the photographs.) But Solomon does flatten history at times. On Sappho, he tells us:

The poet, a Lesbian geographically, was not exclusively so sexually. Our sources tell us that she had a husband and bore him a child, and that she ultimately threw herself over a cliff on the island of Leukas because of her unrequited love for Phaon. (39)

Well, yes, our sources do tell us that. But few scholars aware of the last ten years of scholarship on Sappho accept this version as uncomplicated fact.5

Solomon’s writing style will be pleasing to some, annoying to others. He is an irreverent punster, always willing to coin a neologism or engage in a bit of verbal wit. Most of the time I found this a welcome relief to the (frankly) stultifying catalogues of films under brief discussion. Occasionally Solomon’s willingness to jolt the reader shades into the offensive. I am willing to be amused by his reference to the generic “pointy-bearded tyrant’s pointy-breasted mistress” (310) in the muscleman epics. I cannot be so sanguine about his reference to Messalina as “one of the most notorious aristocratic sluts in history.” (79) Much of the book, too, is dedicated to dishing Hollywood dirt. Financial details of the films are inevitably discussed, as are any scandals that took place during filming. I have a pretty high threshold for low culture, and I like gossip as well as anyone. But at times I began to feel that I was stuck in a phantasmagoric Robin Leach monologue about ancient film sets.

Finally, a note on the “revised and expanded” version. I admit that I did not read the original when it came out, and I have not compared the two versions side-by-side. But I see no great evidence of expansion. No film or television production after 1978 is discussed at length. And though Solomon points to the BBC’s production of I, Claudius of 1976 as the beginning of a “renascence” of interest in the classical world (xv), this book, curiously, does not discuss that brilliant production in detail. Further, though they are mentioned several times, there is no treatment of one of the most bizarre and fascinating cultural phenomena of the last decade, the mind-bogglingly popular television series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and its even more popular spin-off Xena, Warrior Princess. Indeed, one of the striking features of the “renascence” that this edition is celebrating is that our interest in the ancients in the 80’s and 90’s moved, by and large, to the small screen. Again one wishes for some sort of cultural analysis, or critique, of the relation between the film and television industries.

Enough. As a catalogue, the book is exhaustive, and, as a source of information on the historical authenticity of any film on the ancient world, it is useful. A thorough index and two appendices will help readers find information on individual films. The work of cultural critique is left to other scholars or other books.


1. I can think of only one opportunity that Solomon missed: Ulee’s Gold, a critically-acclaimed modern adaptation of the Odyssey starring Peter Fonda (1997). The edition under review came out too soon to make more than passing mention of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), and came out before the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou (2001).

2. See, for example, M. Winkler (ed), Classics and the Cinema Lewisberg, Pa: Bucknell University Press, 1991; M. Wyke, Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema, and History. New York: Routlege, 1997.

3. I have paraphrased Solomon, who says (xvi): “As Maria Wyke pointed out…, it is virtually impossible to look at Hollywood’s treatments of Romans in films like Quo Vadis? (1951), Ben Hur (1959), and Spartacus (1960) without comparing the Romans to Nazis and Communists.” Solomon discusses all three of these films at length without making any such comparison.

4. S. Jeffords, Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994.; R. Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

5.Most immediately relevant is: H.N. Parker, “Sappho Schoolmistress,” TAPA 123 (1993) 309-351.