It was 79 AD when a mountain near the Roman city of Pompeii did something rather unexpected – it exploded into life revealing itself as a volcano.
The green slopes of Vesuvius had hidden its true nature for centuries. But in that year, a cataclysmic eruption tore it apart sending a plume of fire far into the sky.
Pompeii volcano described: “Tree with a flaming trunk”
One contemporary account described it as looking like a tree with a flaming trunk and streaks of fire and smoke high above. That whole area of Italy was plunged into darkness only lit up by thundery streaks.
Death didn’t come instantly to thousands of people living nearby and many chose not to flee straight away. Instead, the stunned citizens of Pompeii decided to stick it out. Maybe they were still overcome with a degree of incomprehension – the sight before them was too much to absorb.
What happened next was the collapse of the enormous volcanic plume sending hot gas and rubble fanning out across Pompeii, Herculaneum and other the surrounding countryside.
At temperatures over a thousand degrees celsius, people were fried where they stood, sat or lay. It didn’t matter if they sought shelter – there was no escape from the Pompeii volcano.
It took 1500 years for Pompeii to be accidentally rediscovered under many feet of solidified volcanic material. Gradually, over the centuries, streets have been uncovered as well as town houses, temples and bath houses.
By pouring concrete into the spaces left behind by vaporised human bodies, we’re even able to see the positions that people died in. Sometimes their hands are raised and you can certainly see their mouths open for one last gasp.
I just visited Pompeii and felt the need to share some great images with you. Hopefully, you will get the opportunity to travel to southern Italy and see it for yourself!
The Roman Empire at the movies has often been great box office. Think Spartacus or Gladiator. Though there have been some box office stinkers too!
From the silent movie era to the CGI laden epics of modern cinema, the Roman Empire has always provided great material for film makers. Rome has gone in and out of fashion but the lure of sword and sandals means it’s always coming back again like a cinematic boomerang.
So – from the early days to our own time – here are the classic Roman movies!
ROMAN MOVIES: The silent era
In the early days of cinema, the Romans on the silver screen were voiceless. The talkies had yet to arrive so there was no audible clash of swords or trundling of chariot wheels. Nevertheless, Rome still gripped audiences. It was always good box office!
The Italian film industry got in early with The Last Days of Pompeii in 1913 – a feature length love story that ends with an erupting Neapolitan volcano. Italian directors never needed a second invitation to make movies about ancient Rome. And the Cinecitta movie studio built under the Mussolini dictatorship has provided convincing Roman backdrops for decades.
The 1913 movie is all about the final days of the Roman city of Pompeii, before the buildings and people of that ancient metropolis were incinerated by spewing lava and fumes from mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The plot is quite operatic and of course the audience realise that many of the characters will be toast in about 90 minutes. But for its time – a compelling piece of cinema.
Ben Hur – a story written over 130 years ago – has gone through five movie versions of varying quality. It’s based on a 19th century novel by the US civil war Union general Lew Wallace. The story’s hero is Judah Ben Hur who falls out with his boyhood Roman friend Messala who allows his Jewish buddy to be framed for a crime he didn’t commit.
Ben Hur eventually gets his revenge by defeating Messala in a chariot race that leaves the nasty Roman mangled and dying. Redemption and happiness returns to Ben Hur when he accepts Christ – who he sees being crucified.
There are two amazing movie versions that I thoroughly recommend. The 1925 silent movie with Ramon Novarro in the lead is beautiful. It’s like art deco meeting ancient Rome.
Charlton Heston took the main role in the subsequent 1959 classic that was deservedly showered with Oscars and is still stunning today. In marked contrast, the 2016 movie is a gigantic turkey that should be avoided at all costs.
ROMAN MOVIES: Golden age of sword and sandals
The 1940s and 1950s were a golden age for sword and sandals biblical epics and ancient Rome featured heavily. 1951 saw Quo Vadis – setting meek and mild Christian heroes against the capricious and evil emperor Nero. It assumed an audience steeped in the kind of Sunday school bible learning that you wouldn’t find in our more secular times – as well as an awareness of the finer details of Roman history.
Then there was Spartacus– a superior example of the genre directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick. It tells the story of a huge slave revolt that really happened in the closing years of the Roman Republic – before it became the Empire.
The cast includes Kirk Douglas as the slave hero. Tony Curtis as his sidekick. Laurence Olivier as the Roman general Crassus. And Charles Laughton as Gracchus.
In this scene below, Crassus has defeated the rebel slave army. He asks which of the slaves is Spartacus so that he can punish the audacious rebel. In a very moving scene, one slave after another claims to be Spartacus. Watch and weep!
By the mid-1960s, the sword and sandals bubble finally burst. The movie Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton soared over budget. The scenes were opulent and jaw dropping with vast numbers of extras and gargantuan studio sets – but the returns to the studio were too thin. Rome had got too bloated for its own good.
ROMAN MOVIES: The Empire Strikes Back!
For the next 35 years, the Romans were put up on a high shelf and sort of forgotten. As far as Hollywood was concerned, the Roman Empire was past its sell-by date. But then in 2000, UK director Ridley Scott bravely resurrected the imperial glory with his movie Gladiator.
For those of us yearning for some swords and some sandals on the big screen again, this was a miracle. When it premiered, I went to see it three times without being bored once. It’s still a remarkably watchable movie. Tightly scripted and with inspired casting. Russell Crowe’s brooding Antipodean growling suited the lead character. And I loved the campy performance from the late Oliver Reed.
It’s a genuinely good film and you can tell because there are so many memorable lines.
So what was the difference between slavery in the Roman Empire two thousand years ago and slavery in the American south 150 years ago. The answers may surprise…
American slavery was very real – here is the grim evidence!
First of all – this is me holding a copy of the Richmond Enquirer – a newspaper from Virginia. This is an original newspaper from 1840. I bought it from an antique dealer a few years ago. And on the front page are some grim reminders of American slavery.
The front page is not like newspapers or websites today – it’s full of small ads and announcements. And shockingly, there are ads for forthcoming slave auctions. Plus there are pleas from slave owners to help them retrieve their runaways.
So – how did American and Roman slavery differ?
The American South defined slavery in racial terms. In the Roman Empire, anybody could end up a slave regardless of skin colour. The Romans, you could say were equal opportunities slavers! So, you might be a Roman citizen living in Syria of Arab ethnicity who owned a Germanic slave captured in one of Rome’s wars on the Rhine frontier.
In other words, a man of Middle Eastern complexion could own a man of blonde and blue-eyed appearance. To the Romans, your status was everything – your race was a lesser factor.
Roman slaves did what we regard as high status jobs. If you went to a doctor, had your accounts worked on, watched an actor at the theatre or met the manager of a local business – all those professionals could have been slaves in ancient Rome. There were slaves in the fields and mines kept in chains and subject to unbelievable brutality. But there were also slaves in what we would regard as white-collar and managerial roles.
This was simply not the case in the American south. The idea of a white family going to an African-American doctor for a consultation would have been unthinkable in early 19th century Virginia. Ditto having your accounts done. Slaves were overwhelmingly in menial, agrarian roles on the plantations. The variety of roles you’d have found in Rome didn’t exist in the American south.
Routes to becoming a slave were very different. In Rome it might involve:
Being a prisoner of war
Born into slavery because your parents were slaves
Abandoned babies often were reared as slaves
You were the citizen of a city that had rebelled against Roman rule and you and your neighbours were carted off as slaves
Your debts had forced you to sell yourself into slavery
American routes into slavery tended to be less subtle:
You were an African American in the southern states
You had been captured or sold in Africa and sold on to slavers who then transported you to the New World – the Caribbean, Latin America or deep south
Freed slaves could be very successful in ancient Rome. The Romans borrowed a practice called manumission from the Greeks. This was a very smart idea. Slaves were encouraged to earn a wage on the side – maybe doing something like basket weaving – and they would save some of their money. At an agreed date, they would approach their master and buy their freedom at a pre-determined price.
For the master, this was great. Slaves were depreciating assets – as all that work wore them down. So now, the master had a tidy sum of money with which to pop down to the slave market and get a replacement. The freed slave still had social obligations to the former master but could otherwise pursue a successful career. Some freed slaves did surprisingly well. The emperor Claudius made considerable use of clever Greek freedmen as advisers.
Slaves were freed in the American south from the 17th century onwards but on nothing like the Roman scale. In fact, American slave owners seem to have been more reticent to give slaves their liberty. The only reason I can think of is that by this period in history, slavery was so obviously a rotten institution. By the early 19th century, the United Kingdom – once an enthusiastic slave trader – had outlawed it.
I suspect American slave owners thought that emancipating one slave could lead by degrees to freedom for all. That kind of concern never bothered a Roman in a world where all societies had slave ownership. There was simply no economic alternative. Whereas by the late 18th and 19th centuries, modern industrial capitalism was arriving on the scene with people hiring their labour to factory bosses.
The chances of freed American slaves succeeding while they remained in the south were pretty poor because of the strong racial element. An American ex-slave was easily identifiable whereas a Roman ex-slave could blend into the population. Most manumitted African Americans retained a very servile status compared to Roman freed slaves.
American slavery made less and less economic sense. New farming technology and the growing of a wider variety of crops made slavery a bit redundant in economic terms from the mid-18th century onwards in the American south. However, studies have concluded that for some landowners and slave traders, investing in human beings was extremely lucrative.
Bluntly, if nobody had been getting rich out of it – slavery would have collapsed long before the American civil war. The investment yield on “slave capital” could be as high as 13% – comparable to investing in the 19th century railroads. It might seem both distasteful and odd to us now, but there were little old ladies in Worcester, England who invested in slaves in the Caribbean or Virginia in much the same way you might invest remotely in shares or bonds today. You can find these records online.
This kind of investment in slaves required a level of financial sophistication and technology unknown to the Romans. They simply bought a human being and put him or her to work. End of story. It was the economic norm and there was no other known way of powering a ship forward (galley slaves), heating a posh house (the hypocaust) or quarrying all that marble to build lovely temples to the gods.
Whereas American slavery could be replaced instantly by harnessing industrial methods and hiring workers. There was simply no good reason for continuing a pre-feudal form of labour in the 19th century. By the end, when the south lost the civil war, plantation owners who had supported the Confederacy just seemed to be flaunting their slaves like trophies as opposed to making a profit and running a proper business.
Sexual abuse of slaves. In both Roman and American slave systems, sexual abuse was common. The main difference would have been that certain sexual practices were condemned by Christian doctrine – sodomy for example – whereas in ancient Rome, no such restriction was in place.
Slaves in Rome could be openly advertised for their sexual capability – heterosexual and homosexual. Ointments were applied to remove body hair and, it was thought, to delay the onset of puberty. For example, a hyacinth bulb dipped in sweet wine and applied on a teenage slave’s body was thought to keep it artificially youthful. Boys might also be castrated to satisfy the demand for young eunuchs.
Sex between slaves and owners was tolerated in ancient Rome and even celebrated on The Warren Cup – a goblet you can see at the British Museum in London. But there were social conventions. The owner had to be dominant and not passive in the sexual act. The slave had to be in very much the submissive role. Some of these relationships may have been consensual – but you can bet a great many more were not.
Sexual abuse also happened to slaves in the Americas but not openly advertised. In one case, an African American man was forced to rape a slave woman in front of the owners for their amusement. Families were split up at slave auctions with women and children then left exposed to their new owner’s whims.