Since the early days of film, the epic battles, turbulent politics, and culture of Ancient Rome have provided filmmakers with sufficient material to produce captivating stories.
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Shakespearean histories, Biblical epics, Sondheim musicals, and more have all found unique ways to take advantage of the rich history of Roman antiquity. Whether you’re a fan of fast-paced action, meaningful dramas, or absurd comedies, there are movies about Ancient Rome for everyone.
Updated on September 26, 2023, by Hannah Saab:
Interest in the best Roman empire movies has spiked in recent weeks thanks to the trending question – “How often do you think about the Roman Empire?” With Gladiator 2 in the works (set to premiere on November 22, 2024), it’s clear that directors aren’t done with movies about the Roman Empire yet, thanks to the vast array of historical events they can draw inspiration from for their next big hits.
12 ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ (1964)
Knowing his time as leader is coming to an end, Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) decides to hand down his crown before his death. However, he does not plan on being succeeded by his son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), but rather by his trustworthy general, Gaius Livius (Stephen Boyd). Outraged by this decision, Commodus’s friends murder Aurelius before these succession plans can be made public, allowing for Commodus to take the throne
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Directed by Anthony Mann, The Fall of the Roman Empireis a battle-filled epic with a star-studded cast. While it was a box office bomb that was criticized for its lack of emotionality, it’s still an impressive movie thanks to its elaborate costumes and immersive set pieces that help transport viewers to the time period it depicts.
11 ‘History of the World: Part I’ (1981)
History of the World: Part I retells human history from the Stone Age to the French Revolution, all in the comedic stylings of Mel Brooks. A large portion of the film’s runtime involves Brooks’ character, a comedian and philosopher named Comicus, and his antics in ancient Rome. Shortly after landing a gig as a comedian at Caesar’s palace, Comicus performs a stand-up routine, and one of his bits is insulting to Emperor Nero, who happens to be in the audience.
Comicus and his friends spend the rest of the Roman Empire segment avoiding capture, even stumbling upon the Last Supper along the way. While the film wasn’t originally intended to have a sequel, Hulu recently announced that a History of the World: Part II series was in the works.
10 ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ (1966)
Richard Lester directed A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a screen adaptation of the stage musical comedy by Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove, and Larry Gelbart. The story centers around Pseudolus (Zero Mostel), a Roman slave.
To obtain his freedom, he agrees to help his master’s son win the heart of a concubine who lives next door, much against the master’s wishes. To make matters even more difficult, the concubine has already been promised to a famous war hero. In addition to Mostel, the film stars Phil Silvers, Michael Crawford, and Buster Keaton in what would be his final film role.
Watch on Prime Video
9 ‘Satyricon’ (1969)
From acclaimed Italian director Federico Fellini, Satyricon is a fantasy drama film that follows the increasingly surreal journey of Encolpio (Martin Potter), whose tragic situation lands him in peculiar stations around Rome in the time of Nero. From battling a minotaur in a labyrinth to attending a violent poetry reading, things just keep taking weirder turns as the movie progresses.
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Fellini’s works are certainly not for everyone, and the 1969 movie is no exception. Its vivid production design embraces and exaggerates costumes, architecture, and designs from Ancient Rome, producing a flamboyant and at times gorgeous portrait of that time period.
8 ‘Titus’ (1999)
An adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, director Julie Taymor’s Titus tells an epic tale of revenge and brutal tragedy in Ancient Rome. It follows the titular general (played by Anthony Hopkins), who starts his own downfall following a heartbreaking decision after emerging victorious in war.
Carried mostly by Anthony Hopkins’ mesmerizing performance as the complex general, Titus is a faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s work (even adapting its slow pacing, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea). It’s a depiction of the cycle of violence that pervades every era, with triumph and tragedy shown hand in hand.
7 ‘Quo Vadis’ (1951)
Quo Vadis is a historical drama set during the reign of Emperor Nero and his persecution of Christians in Rome. The main character of the film, Roman commander Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor), falls in love with a Christian slave woman named Lygia (Deborah Kerr). The more time he spends with her, the more disgusted he becomes with Nero’s (Peter Ustinov) violent leadership. When Nero calls for the execution of Lygia, Marcus becomes determined to free her from captivity and remove Nero from the throne.
Quo Vadis was the highest-grossing film of 1951 and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and its success helped save Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from financial collapse.
6 ‘Julius Caesar’ (1953)
The 1953 film Julius Caesar is an adaptation of the Shakespeare play of the same name. This dramatization revolves around the betrayal and murder of Roman dictator Julius Caesar, played by Louis Calhern, and the immediate impact the event had on Roman leadership.
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After Caesar is killed by his former supporters, including Cassius (John Gielgud) and Brutus (James Mason), Caesar’s closest ally Mark Antony (Marlon Brando) convinces the people of Rome to rise against Caesar’s killers and expel them from Rome. This film, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, was nominated for Best Picture at the 1954 Academy Awards and took home the Oscar for Best Art Direction for a black-and-white film.
5 ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ (1988)
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Willem Dafoe stars as Jesus, Harvey Keitel plays Judas, and David Bowie is Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ, a religious drama directed by Martin Scorsese. The film follows an emotionally distraught Jesus Christ as he struggles with Earthly temptation, oppression under the Romans, and the inevitability of his crucifixion.
Jesus and his trusted friend Judas disagree on how they should be opposing Roman rule, with Judas believing they must use violence to achieve their goals and Jesus choosing to prioritize love for all of mankind. However, Jesus still has his faults and is susceptible to human desires. The film’s controversial depiction of Jesus led to a disapproving, even violent reaction from many religious groups and caused the film to be banned in several countries.
4 ‘Spartacus’ (1960)
Image via Universal Pictures
Director Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Howard Fast’s 1951 novel centers around the leader of a slave rebellion during the downfall of the Roman Republic. This leader, named Spartacus, travels across Rome with his fellow fugitives, fighting, pillaging, and freeing slaves as they go. As more slaves join Spartacus, his army becomes stronger and threatens Rome further, eventually forcing Spartacus and his army to fight to the death against the Roman army under the command of new dictator Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier)
Aside from being an influential historical epic, the film is remembered for having a troubled production that didn’t stop it from earning four Academy Awards. Spartacus also has one of the most famous movie endings of all time.
3 ‘Life of Brian’ (1979)
Life of Brian is a Monty Python comedy that was released in 1979, directed by Terry Jones. Graham Chapman stars as Brian Cohen, an anti-Roman rebel who happened to be born next to Jesus Christ on Christmas day. From his birth to his death, Brian is mistakenly called Messiah by the people of Judea, which often puts him in bizarre predicaments and causes him to garner a following of his own.
RELATED: The Monty Python Movies, Ranked
This British satire is a critique of modern interpretations of Christianity, which has caused it to receive plenty of backlash in the over forty years since its release. However, the negative criticism wasn’t able to stop the film from becoming a beloved comedic classic that is still enjoyed by audiences today.
Watch on Netflix
2 ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959)
William Wyler directed Ben-Hur, a groundbreaking historical drama about Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish prince who lived in occupied Jerusalem at the beginning of the 1st century. One day, during a parade thrown for the new Roman governor of Judea, a piece of Judah’s roof falls onto the governor and seriously injures him. As a punishment, Judah is enslaved and his family is imprisoned. Judah vows to get revenge on his former friend, an officer named Messala (Stephen Boyd), who sentenced Judah and his family despite knowing their innocence.
Ben-Hur won 11 of the 12 Oscars it was nominated for in 1960 and is still regarded by many as one of the greatest films of all time. Its well-choreographed spectacles and gripping drama still hold up today, making it one of the best Roman movies that are worth watching.
1 ‘Gladiator’ (2000)
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Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix star in Gladiator, a Ridley Scott-directed film about a Roman general named Maximus (Crowe), who is set to become the next emperor of Rome. However, when his predecessor, Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), dies, his son Commodus seizes control of the empire and tries to have Maximus (Phoenix) killed. Maximus escapes but is enslaved and forced to fight as a gladiator in the Roman Colosseum.
Gladiator is famous for its brutal fight scenes and spectacular visuals, not to mention its incredible emotional story. Now, over twenty years after the first film’s release, Scott has confirmed that a Gladiator sequel is in the works and is set to premiere on November 22, 2024.
Watch on Prime Video
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