BMCR 2002.07.29

Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture

, , , Imperial projections : ancient Rome in modern popular culture. Arethusa books. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. viii, 299 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0801867428. $45.00.

Imperial Projections is a terrific book. It successfully merges modern cultural critique with sound classical scholarship, and does so in a manner that is enjoyable to read and intellectually challenging.

The premise of the book is promising. The editors wish to explore the Rome that exists in the American imagination and to articulate how we have used Rome as a site of projection for modern cultural conflicts and anxieties. All the essays are good, some are outstanding, and the volume explores a wide range of expressions of popular culture. Included here are the grandiose Roman epic movies of the 50’s and 60’s, the parodies of that form, the BBC’s I, Claudius, a film by Derek Jarman, and even the architectural wonders of Caesars [sic] Palace in Las Vegas. Each author succeeds in analyzing a modern artifact, while taking into account the various modes of production that surround it, the public response to it, and the social currents that inform that production and response. This is cultural criticism at its best, providing us with interesting readings of modern American culture, while also exploring that oft-neglected topic, the form and function of our relation to the classical world.

Should I stop there in my praise I might be thought effusive. And yet there is more to praise. The authors of the book generally avoid jargon, and none explicitly refers to a body of theory. Each essayist, however, demonstrates a sure knowledge of modern critical approaches, and underlying the various theses here one will find the theories of intertextuality, queer theory, Marxist ideology, feminist theory, and cinema studies. (Each contributor is well-known as a classicist, and the authors’ competence here is also evident, though the focus of the book is not on the ancient world per se). In analyzing Spartacus, or the BBC’s I, Claudius, for example, Futrell and Joshel incorporate into their readings a subtle and effective critique of gender roles, and of the ways in which the domestic becomes a safe site for the movies to explore political revolution. Wyke’s treatment of Jarman’s Sebastiane is also an important discussion of the eroticization of suffering, drawing on the work of queer theorists. And so on. But none of the authors spends time justifying the theoretical stances that they take up; rather, their analyses stand on their own merits, and the authors assume that the reader is smart enough to follow along. This sure-footedness regarding issues of gender, sexuality, social class, and critical theory is both welcome and encouraging.

Beyond that, the book holds together uncommonly well for a collection of essays on diverse productions across a range of media. The authors clearly know each other’s essays and have gone to some pains to cross-reference one another. There is some overlap of treatment in a few of the pieces, but generally this ends up being complementary. The book is attractively produced, with a solid bibliography and thorough index.

In the paragraphs that follow, I briefly summarize each of the essays that appear in the volume. I have one or two quibbles with some of the pieces, but these should in no way be seen to detract from the importance of this book, or the enjoyment to be derived from reading it.

Joshel, Margaret Malamud, and Wyke have written an eloquent introduction to the volume in which they outline the major lines of representation of the Roman Empire in American popular culture. Rome is a virtual chameleon as a site of projection: at times Rome represents a tyrannical empire populated by actors with suspiciously upper-class British accents, doomed to be overthrown by plucky Christians who all have American accents. At other times Rome (especially the Republic) is America, the forerunner of our notions of law and, curiously, democracy. In still other venues Rome is characterized by excess, either negatively, as when an emperor (such as Nero) demonstrates moral failure through sexual and economic profligacy, or positively, when Caesars Palace becomes a celebration of that most American of activities, going to the mall. We can identify with Rome, or distance ourselves from it; in either case, Rome becomes a safe space in which to explore anxieties about shifting gender roles or sexual identities, or America’s role as a former colony of Great Britain, or as an emerging world empire.

In “Oppositions, Anxieties, and Ambiguities in the Toga Movie,” William Fitzgerald explores the persistent trope of Rome as a tyrannical empire that is doomed to be replaced by Christianity. As Fitzgerald argues, the movies of the 50’s (especially Quo Vadis, and Ben Hur) are careful to champion Christianity without showing the Christians as actually subversive. The films negotiate this bit of ideology by casting it in the domestic sphere: the hero (played by an American) is converted after falling in love with a Christian woman (played by a European). Thus the rough American is domesticated at the same time that the hero is able to turn away from the flawed, decadent political power of public life at Rome. Fitzgerald is also lucid on the ways in which these films present erotic relations between men (in varying degrees of latency) as an emotional driving force, often masked behind a spectacle of violence.1

Martin Winkler draws a more explicit connection between the films of the 50’s and contemporary politics, arguing that Quo Vadis and Ben Hur figure the Roman empire as an analogue to Nazi Germany. One of the more interesting translations of this analogy has the Christians of ancient Rome as the counterparts to the Jews persecuted by Hitler. While Winkler comments on this oddity (64), he does not quite theorize how it comes about in the American imagination. Moreover, at times he seems to push his evidence a bit far. Order and a desire for empire do not necessarily connote the Nazis. Nonetheless, Winkler has a good deal of interest to say about the iconography of the Roman Eagle in Hollywood films, the depiction of Nero as Antichrist, and Frank Capra’s involvement in American Office of War Information films of the 1940’s.

Alison Futrell’s piece, “Seeing Red: Spartacus as Domestic Economist,” is a model of cultural analysis. She traces the history of the representation of Spartacus’ revolt, showing how the historical event becomes a vehicle in turn for “natural equality,” nationalism, and eventually socialism in subsequent retellings. She then shows how the famous movie version reshapes the overt Marxist motivations of Howard Fast’s play by moving the political revolution to the sphere of the family. Futrell points out that the movie is itself embroiled in a somewhat quieter revolution, as the employment and crediting of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was an important step in dismantling the Hollywood blacklist. This essay, like several others in the volume, also has interesting insights into the ways in which the female lead in these movies of Rome is used to assure the “natural” superiority of its stirring hero.

A highlight of the volume, Sandra Joshel’s ” I, Claudius : Projection and Imperial Soap Opera,” discusses the way in which the BBC’s adaptation of Robert Graves’ novel takes on the form and function of a soap opera. In contrast to the movies of Rome, this small-screen series reduces every aspect of the Empire to the imperial household, so that the decadence of Roman government becomes a family drama. As in soaps, “… family disintegration is repetitive, not cumulative” (143). And most important, the real threat to an orderly society in this domestic drama is a series of manipulative, greedy, lascivious women. Not coincidentally, the series depicts these women (especially Augustus’ wife Livia) as pro-empire, where the “good” men of the series are forced to accept the empire against their desires for a return to the Republic. And finally, Joshel argues that the American showing of this drama had the particular effect of allowing us to see the Romans as “not us,” because they were, essentially, British. Joshel is particularly strong on the way the medium of television itself molded this production, and on the ways in which Alistair Cooke and the reviewers shaped public response to it.

Nicholas Cull’s analysis of the British camp comedies of ancient Rome does a nice job of tracing the roots of this particular genre, in this case to British military humor. There is less critique in this essay than in other pieces in the volume, as a good deal of space is devoted to simply describing the jokes and parodies in Carry On, Cleo, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Up Pompeii. Some of the most interesting material here is Cull’s discussion of the way the “camp” was used to explore anxieties about sex and sexuality in the 60’s. A closing argument makes the point that the kind of “camp” used by these movies is only possible in an era of relative “innocence and repression” (184). What seemed cheeky in the 60’s is pretty tame today, and that makes it difficult to camp things up in quite the same way.

In “Brooklyn on the Tiber: Roman Comedy on Broadway and in Film,” Margaret Malamud gives an extended treatment of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Malamud explores the way that the works of Plautus (themselves derivative of a Greek tradition) were appropriated and recast for the Broadway stage production by Jewish comics who had cut their teeth in the “Borscht Belt.” This Rome is a place where the comic tradition of the clever slave becomes a venue for exploring Jewish-American identification and assimilation. In the movie version of A Funny Thing, however, the story takes on a different tone, as Richard Lester wanted to criticize both the Hollywood film industry and what he understood as the socially unjust world of ancient Rome. He was limited in his ability to do so, however, by producer Melvin Frank. The result is an odd mix of gritty realism (a Rome populated by slaves in rags surrounded by rotting vegetables) and vaudevillian humor.

Martha Malamud writes a cogent essay about Colleen McCullough’s series of novels on ancient Rome in “Serial Romans.” Most interesting here is the observation that these novels are essentially conservative: bloodlines determine social class, and correctly so; women are weak and subordinate; homosexuality is an identity and an indication of moral degeneration; eastern characters are effeminate and luxurious; and so on. Malamud is also instructive on the way in which McCullough infantilizes her characters, producing upper class Romans who are all Id. Finally, the essay critiques the marketing of the novels themselves, and the ways in which the novels re-make Roman history into a supermarket Romance.2

One of the more sophisticated readings of the volume is Maria Wyke’s discussion of Derek Jarman’s 1976 film Sebastiane, “Shared Sexualities.” Wyke traces the historical representation of Saint Sebastian, exploring the process by which his suffering is increasingly seen as erotic and particularly representative of gay male experience and pleasure. She then critiques Jarman’s film, relating it both to this history and to underground gay male pornographic films (some with a vague classical setting) of the 50’s and 60’s. In Jarman’s film Rome becomes a trope for homosexual liberation, rather than homosexuality being a sign of Roman decadence and decline. In creating this representation, however, Jarman focuses not on the interior of the imperial court, but on “barren barracks life on the edges of empire” (230). As such the film re-made both our understanding of homosexuality and of ancient Rome. (Again particularly interesting are the contemporary critics’ attempts to direct and control the potential viewers of the film.) A brilliant, densely argued close to the essay discusses the “potential erotic ecstasy of self-renunciation” (245) of the film in light of our post-Foucauldian understanding of homosexual identity.

The volume closes with a lighthearted, and somewhat light, piece on the history and architecture of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, by Margaret Malamud and Donald McGuire. It is clear that the authors have spared no expense to research their topic, and this is in keeping with the theme of the Palace. This is the Rome of Commerce with a capital C, where luxury and power are celebrated as part of the American vision of “extravagant consumption” (262). As with some of the camp films of the same era, Caesars Palace succeeds (to the extent that it does) because of a kind of willful ignorance, a willingness on the part of the consumer to wink, nudge, and roll her eyes.

In sum, Rome has never been just Rome; and the Empire in particular has been a backdrop against which modern America works out its sense of identity. Imperial Projections goes a long way towards articulating the relation between modern America and ancient Rome, and towards theorizing the many subtexts that inform that relation.


1. I missed reference here to Eve Sedgwick, 1985. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press.

2. Reference could have been made here to two standard works on popular “women’s” fiction: Janice Radway, 1984. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Leslie Rabine, 1985. “Romance in the Age of Electronics: Harlequin Enterprises,” Feminist Studies 11: 39-60.