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Violence in all of its forms - emotional, physical, societal, governmental - is really the essence of drama, and there is no artistic medium more primed to capture and comment upon this kind of drama than the movies. Ancient Imperial Rome has violence written into its DNA, and so it must be with sword-and-sandal cinema.


The Sword and Sandal genre of motion picture has always been, and always will be, fixated upon the role of violence in civilization - both in its form and in its moral implications. In the earliest Roman epics of Hollywood's "Golden Age," imperial force and the enjoyment of blood sports, such as chariot races and gladiatorial competitions, were put in direct opposition to the historical emergence of Christian non-violence. The violent, if not necessarily dynamic, is often starkly represented. The clash of these two philosophies are robustly dramatized in morality plays like Quo Vadis (1951, Mervin LeRoy)[1] and Ben Hur (1959, William Wyler)[2]. There is an unspoken double standard present in these films, because they insinuate that Christian nonviolence is the only true alternative to the violence of the Roman state and then simultaneously push a hero who wins the day through armed struggle and nonresistance.

Charlton Heston in Ben Hur trailer


There are, of course, films set in ancient Rome that do not entail Christianity, and that deal with violence between individuals (gladiators) and institutional violence (Roman military tactics) from a political and humanistic point of view. Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960)[3], the story of a mass slave revolt, often sees violence as a double edged sword, and a force which the slave army is constantly having to grapple with - is revenge justified in certain situations, or should it be rejected outright? Spartacus is also one of the first films to deal with violence in a purely secular fashion, without recourse of religious mores. This is illustrated in one very pivotal scene in which newly freed slaves force their former captors into the arena to fight; the same arena where they have seen their friends forced to kill each other for the amusement of Roman officials. The viewer, having already been exposed to the savagery of gladiatorial training, must confront an essentially identical situation, but with the protagonists in the role of the oppressors. Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) eventually intervenes and condemns blood sport within his slave army, but his pronouncement of non-violence precedes a sustained campaign of looting and war violence. The film seems to condone violence as a means to an end (freedom from bondage in this case), but condemns it as an end in itself.

Spartacus - 1960 - poster

In contrast, Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000)[4] clearly sees revenge as a healthy component of justice, while simultaneously adopting the generally merciful views of Spartacus. Maximus (Russel Crowe), the film's protagonist, at one point in the film garners the name "Maximus the Merciful" because he spares the life of another gladiator in the arena. However, when Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the man responsible for the all of Maxiumus' suffering, enters the arena, his death is both necessary and satisfying for the viewer. It is also, importantly, framed as an act of self defense, where Maximus is only stabbing Commodus to keep from being stabbed himself. Gladiator exemplifies a kind of film-violence loophole, where the satisfaction of revenge can be enjoyed without the moral implications of calculated vengeance.


Other films seem not to comment upon violence at all, but simply evoke it to heighten the drama. Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Cleopatra (1963)[5] explores violence from a purely political point of view, as a tool for the construction and maintenance of empires and cults of personality. Violence and brutality are portrayed as natural to the milieu of the story, and almost every plot development between the main characters is couched in some act of brutality. Julius Caesar's (Rex Harrison) first encounter with Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) comes by way of Caesar asking her brother, Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII for assistance in a bloody civil war. Similarly, Marc Antony's (Richard Burton) romance with Cleopatra only happens because of Julius Caesar's assassination. The film is concerned with the violence done to and because of the characters, but is not particularly interested in examining violent behavior in general.

The extreme end of this approach comes in Tinto Brass's Caligula (1979)[6]; an extremely graphic portrait of the depraved life and obsessions of the Roman emperor Caligula. Brass's film positively luxuriates in the violence and depravity of its main characters, and makes no attempt to explain or even question it. Depravity is simply displayed with as much realism (including, but not limited to, unsimulated sex) and enthusiasm as can be mustered.


Comedies must, by definition, deal with violence in an ironic way. This can be done understating the violence (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 1966)[7], or by exaggerating it past the point where it can be taken seriously (Monty Python's Life of Brian, 1979)[8]. This does not at all mean that comic portrayals of violence are necessarily less profound than non-comic ones. If anything, the ironic distance allows for a more comprehensive, dispassionate comment upon the social function and impact of violence.

Life of Brian, a story which closely mirrors the life of Jesus, draws particular attention to the more absurd elements of ancient Judaic law an the Roman penal system. Both stoning and crucifixion are lampooned as stupidly sadistic methods of execution, and as futile ways of preventing nonkosher and dissident behavior respectively. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum seeks to make violence innocuous by making acts of brutality the punchlines of jokes. One particularly blustery character, Miles Gloriosus (Leon Greene), constantly threatens the main character, a slave named Pseudolus (Zero Mostel), with ghouish punishments, and a scene depicting a gladiator practicing his skills on live people becomes an elaborate sight gag. A similar approach is taken in Mel Brooks' comedy A History of the World, Part 1 (1981). The humor doesn't trivialize the reality, but allows us to see its absurdity in a comedic context, unencumbered by the normal emotional response one would have to real violence. [9]

  1. Quo Vadis. Dir. Mervyn LeRoy. Perf. Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Peter Ustinov. M-G-M, 1951. DVD.
  2. Ben-Hur. Dir. William Wyler. Perf. Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd. MGM, 2001. DVD.
  3. Spartacus. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons. Universal Pictures Co., 2016. Amazon Video.
  4. Gladiator. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Russel Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed. DreamWorks Pictures, 2009. DVD.
  5. Cleopatra. Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Perf. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowall. 20th Century-Fox, 2013. DVD.
  6. Caligula. Dir. Tinto Brass. By Gore Vidal. Perf. Malcolm McDowell, Peter O'Toole, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud, John Steiner, and Teresa Ann Savoy. Analysis Film Releasing Corp, 1979.
  7. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Dir. Richard Lester. Perf. Zero Mostel, Phil Silver, Buster Keaton, Michael Crawford, Jack Gilford, Annette Andre, Michael Hordern. United Artists, 2014. DVD.
  8. Monty Python's Life of Brian. Dir. Terry Jones. Perf. Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin,. Cinema International Corporation, 2007. DVD.
  9. History of the World, Part 1. Dir. Mel Brooks. Perf. Mel Brooks, Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman. 20th Century-Fox, 2016. Amazon Video.