Getting Your Roman Fix this Easter: A Curators Choice for Books and Movies in Lock-down

Hadrian's Wall Live

Getting Your Roman Fix this Easter: A Curators Choice for Books and Movies in Lock-down

John Scott and Tim Padley give a selection of Roman inspired films and books for lock down. 

As we don’t have the option of visiting our fantastic Wall at this time and getting our “Roman experience” that way it got John Scott, Management Plan Coordinator, wondering about how we might have that experience another way. As a result, he got to further thinking about what films he might want to watch over this Easter and that, in turn, reminded him of when he first arrived on Hadrian’s Wall. Stick with us we're getting to the point… Over to John.... 

Within weeks of starting on the World Heritage Site I was fortunate enough to work with a great team of people at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle, helping out as they redesigned one of their galleries which was ultimately to become the Roman Frontier Gallery.

When this pandemic and current restrictions on movement are over, if you’ve not been to Tullie House when it reopens, just go. It’s great. Not just because of the Roman history, that’s just the starting point for a turbulent history of a border city and a wealth of stories, but also it’s in a lovely city, with good shopping, imposing castle and beautiful cathedral.  Oh, and when visiting can resume again, Tullie has a cracking café and fab’ cake, personally tested and retested, Yum.

At the time, Tullie’s Curator was Tim Padley. We had a ‘top 10’ well, ‘top 5’ moment while writing some text for the gallery, so that’s what I thought I’d share with you… I can’t say that either of us is Claudia Winkleman or Barry Norman but see how they compare with your list.

Tim Padley’s Choice

Tim Padley, former Keeper of Archaeology at Tullie House, gives a selection of Roman inspired films and books that he has enjoyed over the years.


Spartacus (1960) Although this can be seen as a modern story clothed in Roman garb, it does give a good impression of what the Roman world looked like. It is directed by Stanley Kubrick who I always felt made films that were a delight to look at.

Cleopatra (1963) Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and grand sets all on the big screen. This was both the glamour of the 1960s and the spectacle of Rome.

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) This deals with the death of Marcus Aurelius and the succession of Commodus. It may have been a flop at the box-office, but I like it because of some of the set-piece scenes. My favourites are when Marcus Aurelius reviews the envoys, giving a great impression of the enormity and diversity of the Roman world. The scenes at the end show the size and bustle of Rome.

The Life of Brian (1979) As a member of the Monty Python generation I would like this. I particularly like the ‘Romans Go Home’ scene.

Gladiator (2000) Although the background is similar to The Fall of the Roman Empire, the film has a very different feel. It shows the sheer number of people who lived in Rome, particularly when they fill the Colosseum.


Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling (1906) On the Great Wall deals with defending Hadrian’s Wall against the Picts.

I Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935) by Robert Graves, These are classics. They show the life of the early Emperors and their families and are based on the Roman historian Suetonius.

Count Belisarius (1938) by Robert Graves, Here the author uses later sources to show what the Roman Imperial system had become when it was transformed into the Byzantine Empire.

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe (1954) Rosemary Sutcliffe used historical and archaeological information to fashion an adventure for children. However, the eagle found at Silchester is not a Legionary standard, but the mystery of the lost Legion remains.

The ‘Falco’ novels by Lindsey Davis (1989 onwards) This series of Roman detective stories gives a good impression of life in Rome and in Roman Britain. However, many of the preoccupations are modern ones projected onto ancient Rome, including package tourism!

The ‘Roma sub Rosa’ novels by Steven Saylor (1991 onwards) The series deals with the fall of the Roman Republic. It covers all of the main events and shows that the decline took place in the space of a single lifetime.

The Romans in Popular Culture

When bringing together the film clips used in the gallery it became apparent that virtually no other historical period carried quite the impact that Rome holds in popular culture.

As Tim Padley highlights in his personal selection of films and books exploring the Roman Empire, there are miles of film and forests of pages dedicated to exploring Rome’s conception, conquests and eventual decline, you cannot help wondering why. Why is it such a draw for modern day storytellers?  In the dark ages, the legacy of Rome became the stuff of myth; buildings and technology that were seen as the work of giants and gods. What place does Rome hold with society today?

When you look initially at Rome in twentieth and twenty-first century culture, it seems to be a spectacle of power, awe and respect. This is very much the way we used the film clips in the Frontier gallery, ‘borrowing’ their well understood myth of opulence, extravagance, opportunity, progress and ultimate power. However, as you look closer at how these ancient characters are used in modern stories something equally as straightforward, but far more telling appears. 

No matter what film we choose, they all explore the idea of ultimate power and more pointedly that ultimate corruption or loss of connection to the real world and real people. So often in these films either an individual or an ideology is tested against the establishment and proves that good always finds a way to foil corruption to win the day. In this way, Rome has become every government, political system and foreign country around the world. The slave, the discredited idealist or persecuted religious group becomes the new way of thinking. That new way will eventually prove the old aggressor false, realising its wrongs and highlighting its faults.

In Gladiator and especially Spartacus, we see one man take on the system represented by the Empire and winning either physically or morally. The line ‘I am Spartacus’ coming to imply solidarity against a system.  Quo Vadis and I Claudius explore ultimate power and its ability to corrupt. Even the classic comedies of Carry on Cleo and Up Pompeii rely on Rome to provide the ‘straight man’ as they pick holes in the establishment.

So, it’s no surprise really that Rome still echoes around the world in popular culture. Its universal recognition as the ultimate Empire and embodiment of the establishment will always fit the contemporary world’s need to push against politics, power and identity. It is the Cold War and ‘Big Brother’ all wrapped up into one. It is modern enough to be relevant and far enough in the past not to insult directly. 

So, 2000 years on, someone will always be thrown to the lions, contests will always be gladiatorial and the prologue? Well, I doubt that will never be finished!

My Five Fave’ Recommended Roman Films? …

Spartacus, THE roman spectacular and a symbol of solidarity against the system

Cleopatra, opulence, luxury and political shenanigans helped along by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton

Carry on Cleo, using a lot of the props and costumes from Cleopatra the Carry On team rib the empire for all its worth with great visual and linguistic gags along the way.  I read that the use of the name ‘Marcus & Spencius’ in one scene did not cheer up the well-known high street store with a similar name and that legal action was taken.

The Eagle, the full image of mud and occupation on the front line. One person sets out to prove the Empire’s rules wrong and reclaim personal honour. The film has some of the best opportunities to explore the idea of the non-Roman. A very strong resonance is seen with world events at the time of its filming.

Up Pompeii, purely because it exploits every popular view of Romans to the maximum degree, every idea we have of Rome is taken as a starter for a joke and pokes a finger in the eye of whoever is seen as in charge.

As well as John and Tim's reccomendations, Tullie House has produced a podcast for the Roman Frontier Gallery too; The podcast looks at the conception, installation and impact of Tullie House’s Roman Frontier Gallery, and how it has engaged with wider themes of frontiers and boundaries, both metaphorical and physical, how they have been drawn and re-drawn, constructed and contested the world over.

Stay home, stay safe, and we wish you a Happy Easter, from across Hadrian’s Wall, wherever you are in the world.


Share this: