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Film / The Fall of the Roman Empire

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"Livius, if you listen very carefully, you can hear the gods laughing!"

The Fall of the Roman Empire is a 1964 Epic Movie directed by Anthony Mann and produced by Samuel Bronston. It has an All-Star Cast that includes Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, Christopher Plummer, Alec Guinness, Mel Ferrer and James Mason. Omar Sharif also appears, in a small role.

The narrative focuses primarily on the trio consisting of General Livius (Stephen Boyd), and the children of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) — Commodus (Christopher Plummer) and Lucilla (Sophia Loren). Livius and Commodus are childhood friends, and he is in love with Lucilla, and all things considered would like to Marry for Love and become part of the Imperial family. However, tensions in the final years of the Emperor's reign and a series of conspiracies by senatorial factions lead to the fracturing of their friendship. Commodus, unexpectedly and against his father's intentions, becomes Emperor, Lucilla enters into an Arranged Marriage, and, little by little, the empire crumbles from within.

Together with the previous year's Cleopatra, the film is considered by some to be the real end of the old Hollywood Epic Movie, or at least the end of epic Sword and Sandal theatrical films for a long time. It boasted the largest outdoor set in the history of film, a 92,000 square meter replica of the Roman Forum. 2000's Gladiator would relaunch the genre and, ironically, borrowed a lot from this film while not quite being a remake.

The movie has examples of:

  • Adaptational Dye-Job: The historically blond Commodus is portrayed with black hair.
  • Arranged Marriage: Marcus Aurelius packs Lucilla off to be bride to the king of Armenia. Lucilla, who loves Livius, is unhappy about this.
  • Artistic License – History: Classic for Hollywood History, albeit better than others of its time:
    • Marcus Aurelius made it clear that Commodus would be his heir and had no hesitancy whatsoever about his choice of claimant. Indeed, Aurelius defied the conventions of Imperial Succession by instituting primogeniture.
    • The finale where the Throne is auctioned to the highest bidder, didn't happen after Commodus' death, or immediately after Commodus' death, but it happened in the Year of the Five Emperors that followed Commodus' death, so it's at best a simplification.
    • Much of the latter half of the film revolves around peace with barbaric German tribes, but said peace was never a real political concern for Rome, since it had been policy not to send excursions to North Germany, and the Marcomanni Wars which Marcus Aurelius fought was more a border dispute than any long-lasting peace. In the next few centuries, many of the Germanic tribesmen would become mercenaries for Rome (and subsequently did revolt when they didn't get paid or citizenship).
    • Aurelius' dream of equal citizenship for all Romans would be passed, uncontroversially, by Caracalla several decades onwards.
    • The finale has Commodus plan on making Livius and Lucilla Human Sacrifice to Zeus. Human Sacrifice was illegal in Rome at this point. The last recorded sacrifices happened in the Republican era, famously after defeat at Cannae, and some other isolated incidents documented by Pliny the Elder.
    • The character of Livius is fictional. Commodus did in fact have a sister named Lucilla, but the Real Life Lucilla was executed two years into her brother's reign for taking part in a plot to murder him.
    • Commodus didn't die because he challenged anyone to a duel to the death. He was strangled in his bath by his wrestling partner, who was probably acting on the orders of the next emperor, Pertinax.
  • Bastard Bastard: Commodus is portrayed as the illegitimate son of Faustina the Younger and Verulus, a gladiator-turned-bodyguard to the emperor. This is based on a rumour that Commodus was actually the son of a gladiator that Faustina had taken as a lover but all serious historians recognize Commmodus as the son of Marcus Aurelius.
  • Dated History:
    • The film takes as its thesis that Marcus Aurelius was the last great emperor and that the Empire after his passing was a long decay. While this was a popular opinion for a long period of time, historians have since corrected and modified this, by noting that the Emperors like Aurelian showed great dynamism bringing Rome Back from the Brink of the "Crisis of the Third Century", and furthermore even crackpots like Caracalla actually did extend citizenship across the Empire as Aurelius had planned. Furthermore the great rulers like Diocletian, Constantine came after this period. The so-called "decline" of the Roman Empire is no longer seen as a result of decay or some inevitable slide but a result of serious political and institutional errors on the part of its final emperors.
    • The portrayal of Commodus as a Bastard Bastard comes from a rumour that Faustina Minor had taken a gladiator as a lover and the unreliable Augustan History even painted her as an adulteress that had relations with sailors, gladiators and men of rank but we now know her and Marcus Aurelius to have been mutually devoted.
  • Darker and Edgier: Almost all Hollywood Epics before this (with the exception of Spartacus) made Rome into a Crystal Spires and Togas-like great civilization. Anthony Mann's bleak, dark, nihilistic take is a much harsher, and colder look at the era, and its civilization, and openly condemns Rome's imperialism and warmongering, seeing the latter as the true source for its corruption and downfall.
  • Demoted to Extra: Pertinax, Commodus' immediate successor, is relegated to a cameo while Didius Julianus, his immediate successor, is a major character.
  • Downer Ending: Livius and Lucilla survive. The Empire does too, but is clearly mortally wounded, as Commodus's crown is auctioned off to the highest bidder, while any chance of peace with the now pissed-off barbarians in Germania is ended.
  • Evil Former Friend: Commodus to Livius, and played for tragedy, since unlike in Gladiator, their friendship so very real, and in fact a liability for both of them. They actually grew up together in childhood unlike that movie to the point their bond was much like real blood brothers.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Commodus strikes a cheerful, friendly manner no matter what. He is smiling and chuckling as he tells the eastern governors that he doesn't care if their people are starving; they'll double their grain shipments and Commodus will destroy them if they don't.
  • A God Am I: Commodus, as expected for a Roman Emperor. However, his raging ego and his Villainous Breakdown make this go into overdrive.
  • Historical Badass Upgrade: Unlike his real counterpart and most modern fictional portrayals, Commodus actually served in the legion and even volunteers to fight in the front lines in a plan to bait barbarians. In addition he is not shown any hint of cheating in gladiatorial games as in real life and he chose to fight Livius under fair conditions in the penultimate fight, choosing to accept his death upon the killing blow rather than cowering or trying to escape.
  • I Lied: Despite an earlier promise to spare their lives if defeated, Commodus orders the burning of Lucilla and the surviving German settlers immediately after being stabbed by Livius in one last act to feed his ego and spite Livius. After recovering from a brief Heroic BSoD, Livius barely manages to rescue Lucilla while the rest burn to death, screaming their desire to see Rome die one day.
  • Intermission: Part One ends with Caesar Commodus entering the Temple of Jupiter. He puts his laurel on the altar and looks up at the Statue of Jupiter, gaining delusions of godhood.
  • Karma Houdini: Many of Commodus' supporters, including the senators and soldiers he corrupted through bribery, survive the events of the movie unpunished for their shameful actions. It could also be seen as a case of Laser-Guided Karma given that these same people will eventually have to face the consequences of Commodus' shortsightedness, including violent uprisings from Germania and the eastern provinces.
  • Literary Allusion Title: The title refers to Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Livius, despite having verbal confirmation from Lucilla that Marcus Aurelius did name him his heir, won't hurt his friend Commodus by accepting it, and instead proclaims him Caesar. Fortunately...
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: ...Commodus still trusts Livius enough even after Livius defies him to appoint him to end the eastern empire's rebellion, which leads to Livius becoming aware of the true evil of Commodus and eventually opposing him.
    • Commodus does this at the end when, having won total victory, he chooses to have a fight to the death with Livius, and gets himself killed. Of course this only for a given value of "fixing it" as Rome has begun its downhill slide regardless.
  • Non-Indicative Name: As the finale, quoting Will Durant notes, this was the "beginning of the Fall of the Roman Empire". The film chronicles the reign of Commodus (177-192) and the Empire lasted 200+ years after that.
  • Offered the Crown: After Commodus' death, Livius is offered rulership of the Roman Empire. Disgusted with the corruption of the Senate, his own army and the people of Rome, Livius turns down the offer and quietly leaves Rome with Lucilla.
  • "Pan Up to the Sky" Ending: The camera pans up, following the pillar of smoke from all the people who were burned at the stake, as Livius and Lucilla leave Rome.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: This is how Commodus manages to get the entire city and the few remaining loyalists to Marcus Aurelius's dream to join him in his mad revelry.
  • Snow Means Death: A snowy blizzard fills the air during the funerary ceremony of Marcus Aurelius, with the blowing of the winds, signifying the end of peace, stability, and hope.
  • Tragic Villain: Commodus, who has a great deal of personal courage, enough initial grace to accept the possibility of Livius becoming Caesar instead of himself, and a genuine love for both his mother and (though strained) for his father. Too bad he's an Inadequate Inheritor with a Freudian Excuse and a Dumb Jock philosophy.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Commodus hits this hard after Livius finally turns on him, and it only gets worse when he discovers why his "father" didn't trust him.
  • Villain Team-Up: The Armenian and Persian Empires team up to take advantage of the Roman civil war. Historically, Armenia was an agreed upon buffer kingdom patronized by both Rome and Persia, as per the peace agreement brokered by Augustus.