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Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds

Published in History Today 2008

Yet if I had a pound for every time that someone asked me, with my professional classics hat


Richards’ eschewing of the accuracy issue gives him the luxury of putting the production and impact of films from 300 (2007) and The Ten Commandments (1956) way back to silent movies into their broader political and economic context. He is not a classicist but a historian of British, particularly Victorian, history and of cinema and as such is especially good on where these films come from, blending the history of art, theatre and cinematography with a lightness of touch that brings a serious message to the anecdotal (e.g. that Ben-Hur, made in 1926, was banned by Mussolini for being hostile to the Roman empire and by the Chinese for being Christian propaganda). Richards’ wide range of examples means that he cannot engage as intensely as he might with the extensive ‘classics on film’ bibliography. But his book is a readable synthesis nevertheless.

By the time we reach its final page, we have a very strong sense of how these films ‘have used the Ancient World as a vehicle to comment on the ideas and values of its own age’. But where does this leave authenticity? The cinema helps us expose the space between representation and reality, and the layers of response that separate us from antiquity. It is precisely because ‘ancient world epics’ are as Richards claims that so many Classics Departments now use them in their teaching.

Caroline Vout is the author of Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

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