In honor of March being National Women’s History Month, I thought it appropriate to pay respect to those ancient Roman women who have been portrayed (accurately or inaccurately) in film and television. For it is often through television and film that ancient people or historic events pick up popularity amongst modern society.
Moreover, I stand to prove that most ancient women portrayed in film fit the theme “Behind Every Great Man is a Great Woman.” In addition to this idea, their portrayals most often are exaggerated in order to shock or overwhelm audiences of the exotic and foreign nature of the past. Rarely are any of these women (that I discuss at least) portrayed accurately, but they are shown through a highly stylized light which allows the audience to see the clear distinction between ancient women and modern women. However, this distinction is only seen in “period” scenarios such as dining, dresses, politics, societal mores, etc. Each of these women is also shown in a light that reflects those deep rooted feminine mores in which any women from any period would identify with: being a mother, being a wife, part of family unity, head of a household, avenging themselves, avenging injustices upon their family or country, and being true to herself.
DISCLAIMER**Please note that some of these observations include SPOILERS; so if you have not seen the film or series discussed move to the next historic figure.
Name: Lucilla or Annia Aurelia Galeria Lucilla
Film: Gladiator (2000)
Attributes in the Film: Strong, Loving, Tactical, Empathetic, Motherly, Victim to her Brother
Film Quote: “If only you had been born a man…What a Caesar you would have made….I think you would have been strong.I wonder if you would have been just?” -Marcus Aurelius
Hollywood’s Version: Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) is the sister of Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), daughter of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), and implied ex-lover of General Maximus(Russell Crowe). She is portrayed as the concerned mother of her son, Lucius, because she fears that her brother will murder him since he is next in line to be emperor. Her relationship with her brother is a strange one that straddles of the lines of incestuous and fraternal love- however, this is not her doing, but her brothers. She is also shown to be working with the Senate of Rome to overthrow her brother and restore the Republic.
Attributes in History: Strong, Ambitious, Tactical
History’s Version: As the daughter of Marcus Aurelius, she was married off to his co-ruler: Lucius Verus. They had three children including a son named Lucius, but only their daughter Lucilla Plauta survived. Since her husband was co-ruler of Rome, she had high aspirations to become an empress of Rome. But these dreams were cut short, when her husband Lucius died. And, she was promptly married off again. This time it was to a less influential man and she began to see her dreams of being empress fade. Even more so were her dreams dissipated, when her father died and her brother Commodus became emperor. With Commodus’ unstable rule, Lucilla decided to take part of a plot to assassinate her brother and replace him with her husband and herself as emperor and empress. She had many allies in this conspiracy including formal consuls, the imperial guard, and even her daughter, Lucilla Plauta. The former consul, Quintianus, sent his nephew to kill Commodus, but alas it was a failure. Upon revealing his dagger, the nephew yelled,”Here is what the Senate sends to you!” His exclamation gave the emperors guards enough to time to deflect the attack. Lucilla was banished to Capri and a year later Commodus sent a centurion to execute them.
Her Hollywood Formula: Her historic and theatric versions differ enormously. The only similarity is her attempt to overthrow her brother. In the film, she succeeds for the good of the Roman people; in history, she fails at her attempt to make herself empress. Therefore, Hollywood has taken Lucilla and shaped her into a widow that only cares for her son. She is never seen in the film as ambitious, treacherous, or cruel. If she plots (as she did in history), she does so for the general good and everyone she loves. She is the epitome of a caring mother, a loyal citizen, an empathetic soul, and the right arm of justice. Hollywood’s choice to put her in such a predominant role reveals their conscientious choice to portray a female character in manner other than a victim (Maximus’ wife or female gladiators). Finally, it is only through Lucilla efforts that Maximus is freed from being a gladiator, released to his family, and Rome is restored. Thus, fitting the theme: “Behind Every Great Man is a Great Woman.”
Name: Atia of the Julii or Atia Balba Caesonia or Atia Balba Secunda
Film: HBO’s Rome (2005)
Attributes in the Series: Ambitious, Plotting, Sensitive, Loving, Family Oriented, Selfish, Lustful, Blunt, Ruthless
Series Quote: “By the five Furies, if I was not a gentle woman, I would have you flayed, and hung from a bracket at the door!” – Atia of the Julii
Hollywood’s Version: Atia (Polly Walker) is the series’ epitome of the Roman upper-class woman. She is wealthy, enjoys her rights, has slaves, eats how she pleases, and takes part in religious and social practices with ease. Like most upper-class women, she is concerned for her appearance, her family’s reputation, her dinner parties and most of all her children’s future: Octavia (Kerry Condon) and Octavian( Max Pirkis). She is the symbol and perhaps the original meddlesome mother. She is not married and therefore acts alone in her decisions and choices. Her mannerisms and diction are quite blunt when addressing her children and their maturation, sexual practices, and political choices. In this aspect, she may be both humorous and boorish to the audience. She often tells her children what they should do, how they should do it, and uses them as political pawns until they are too old for her to maneuver. She is also the Roman lover of Marc Antony (James Purefoy), who appears to be her only weakness.
Attributes in History: Good Mother, Attentive, Loyal, Cautious, Sensible,
History’s Version: Atia was married to Gaius Octavius with whom she had Octavia and Octavian. However, her husband died and she remarried Lucius Marcius Philippus. Both were supporters of Julius Caesar. Atia and Philippus equally took the time and patience to raise her children and educated them properly. When her son, Octavian(later Augustus) was announced Caesar’s heir; Atia was so fearful for her son’s safety that she and Philippus urged him to renounce his rights as Caesar’s heir. She died during her son’s first consulship, in 43 BC.
Her Hollywood Formula: While the series and history have some common ground such as: her raising her children and being a devoted mother. Her affair with Antony provided HBO with one of its means of for explicit content which I imagine increases ratings. She is shown as the mother behind the great man that was Augustus Caesar; however within the series, she is shown to be cruel, selfish, manipulative, and in her final episode weak and vulnerable. Hollywood creates a memorable character who is both humorous and spiteful, but at the end the audience plainly see a woman who simply tried her best for her family and never to appear weak.
Name: Cleopatra or Cleopatra VII Philopator (While not Roman herself, during Roman times)
Film: Cleopatra (1963)
Attributes in the Film: Sensual, Loving, Strong, Ambitious, Attractive, Demanding, Natural Leader
Film Quote: “I will not be told where I can go and where I cannot go!”-Cleopatra
Hollywood’s Version: She (Elizabeth Taylor) is the Queen of the Nile who seduces not one man, but two influential Roman men. Wife to both Julius Caesar (Rex Harris) and Marc Antony(Richard Burton), Cleopatra ruled Egypt and aspired to rule Rome. Her life’s story is extensive, but can be read: here. However, the film deals with Cleopatra’s dealings and relationships with Caesar and Antony.
Attributes in History: Sensual, Strong, Ambitious, Tactical
History’s Version: The events that follow in the 1963 version of Cleopatra do not stray far from the accounts of ancient historians. The film itself makes some anachronisms with the presence of the Arch of Constantine, interior design issues and others (here). Furthermore, it is never really disclosed that Cleopatra was a beautiful woman, but more so she was a woman of extravagance and luxury. Her beauty is a long debated attribute.
Her Hollywood Formula: In comparison to the other women, Cleopatra lived the most outrageous and exotic life; Cleopatra’s life has love, affairs, seduction, allure, power, war, assassination and suicide. Her life and story do not need Hollywood to invent something new. Hollywood, at times, take the opportunity to portray her weak at moments like Caesar’s death, Antony’s death, etc. However, it doesn’t get anymore Hollywood than her life; and for this reason Cleopatra has had over 14 television series and films that feature her. Her portrayals began in 1899 and the newest movie in development may feature Angelina Jolie (check out more upcoming ancient films: here). Furthermore, it would appear that Cleopatra was actually a great woman behind two men: Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.