The Fall of The Roman Empire (1964)
By: Joseph Jordan, Christian Vega, and John Merino

Production: Edit

Basic Info

  • One of Bronston’s super-productions in Spain
  • Their reconstruction of the Roman Forum holds the record for largest outdoor film set
  • Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas turned down the role of Livius
  • Sophia Loren was the highest paid cast member at $1 million


  • Shot in 70mm Ultra Panavision
  • Aspect Ratio 2.20 : 1


Synopsis Edit

The film begins with emperor Marcus Aurelius assembling representatives from across the Roman Empire in an attempt to secure a peace through which all of the empire could blossom. Once it is revealed that Marcus Aurelius plans to name his adopted son Livius as his successor, the more reasonable successor, Commodus, he is poisoned by a follower of Commodus. Marcus' daughter Lucilla desires for Livius to take the throne, but he refuses and leaves the Roman Empire in the hands of Commodus. Commodus then plays God and kills all who oppose or even upset him. When it is learned that Lucilla is the rightful heir, Commodus orders her to be burned at the stake. Livius then intervenes to save his sister, killing Commodus and vowing to piece together the fallen Empire.

Thematic Elements and Technique Edit

“Remember, thou art mortal,”[1] is whispered to Commodus as he takes the place of his murdered father, Marcus Aurelius, as Caesar in Rome. It is this line which encompasses the elegiac thread of Anthony Mann’s 1964 film The Fall of the Roman Empire. The film begins on the Danube frontier of the Roman Empire during a cold and unforgiving winter, and the advancing snow really solidifies the sense of Aurelius’s demise, and in one particularly moving scene, Aurelius contemplates and bargains with death as a disease painfully works away at his insides. Aurelius, in contrast to Roman imperial tradition and his son Commodus’s more barbarous tendencies, has encouraged diplomacy, peace, and compassion in his armies and in his peers, and he suggests to his daughter that the only paths in a world where death is inevitable are compassion (for oneself and for others) and reason. During his funeral, one can almost hear the god’s laughing as the snow falls and the great emperor burns on the pyre. His wish for peace and compassion have fallen on deaf ears, and his friends and family are now sowing the seeds of Rome’s decay.

The film is, for a sword-and-sandal epic, uncharacteristically poetic and thoughtful, acknowledging the complex net of factors which led to Rome’s demise, and placing its characters in moral dilemmas which are not easily soluble by recourse to tradition or religion. The film, of course, obeys many generic conventions - swelling, brass dominated score, rivalry/betrayal between friends, and a romantic subplot - but, strangely, the convention only serves to further illustrate the films central premise, which is that the dialectical forces of time, entropy, and human stupidity will inevitably bring down even the strongest empire.

Anthony Mann, through his masterful use of deep staging (helped along by the high definition, ultra-wide frame of Ultra-Panavision 70 film stock)[2], crane shots, and strategic close up, solidifies the drama, and makes the downfall of Rome vertiginous and interesting, rather than simply leaden and depressing. In addition to exhilarating, Mann also knows when to slow the action down and simply observe the downward slide in a measured and poetic fashion. The most striking example of this is during Marcus Aurelius’ funeral, where the camera slowly dollys past his imperial cabinet as the snow falls languorously, and an eerie, wind-swept moaning can be heard. Few shots have managed to capture the unraveling of an empire as brilliantly as this.

Also, not to be forgotten, is the brilliant work of cinematographer Robert Krasker - the man behind the timelessly evocative images of David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) and Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) - who manages to alternate effortlessly between Edenic (see opening battle scene) and Hellish portraits of the Roman landscape. Krasker also manages to evoke, especially in the opening Germanic sequence, an Earthen tone in the film not previously seen in any other Roman epic, one which is harsh and monochrome without being bland and uninteresting.

Historical Context Edit

  • This movie takes place over 200 years before the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire. Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor in this film, ruled from 161-180. He was the last of the Antonines, which were known as the “Five Good Emperors”. During this period Rome was flourishing as they had never been attacked directly by an outside force until the reign of Marcus Aurelius. He protected the empire from the first wave of Germanic tribes, which some historians say could be argued as the true beginning of the fall. However, the Roman Empire is said to have not fallen until around 476 under the reign of Romulus Augustulus. Augustulus was forced out by Germanic mercenaries after a failed attempt to secure Rome, and the Western Empire fell into the hands of several barbarian generals.

Movie Inaccuracies:

  • Marcus Aurelius’ death, in the film, is caused by one of Commodus’ loyalists poisoning him. His death however was reported to be by smallpox, a disease that wiped out many of his troops. Unlike the Emperors before him, Marcus Aurelius passed on the Emperorship to his son, whom he had trained for many years. The Emperors before him passed the throne based on ability, but from what is known, the previous Emperors did not have sons to pass on this great responsibility. Livius, the soldier in the film that Aurelius intended to pass the throne on to, did not exist, nor was he based on a real character. Lucilla, the daughter of the Emperor, is seen as chaste in the film. This was not the case. She is known to have been involved in several affairs, and some sources say she pretended to be a prostitute for her own personal amusement. She did however plot against her brother, which caused her to be exiled and later murdered by his authority. The meeting Marcus Aurelius had with the leaders of the Empire about tolerance never took place, instead this is said to have more historical context with America in the 1960’s.


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