Konstantinos P. Nikoloutsos on Ancient Warfare in Film

    4 July 2024

New Books in Classical Studies
Konstantinos P. Nikoloutsos (Ed.), "Brill's Companion to Ancient Greek and Roman Warfare on Film ", (Brill 2023)

We are honored to present insights from Konstantinos P. Nikoloutsos, Professor in the Department of History at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. With extensive publications on Roman sexuality, celluloid antiquity, and classical reception, Professor Nikoloutsos is a leading authority in these fields. His latest editorial work, "Brill’s Companion to Ancient Greek and Roman Warfare on Film," marks a pioneering exploration of warfare's portrayal in cinematic representations of antiquity.

Can you provide a brief overview of the key themes and objectives of "Brill's Companion to Ancient Greek and Roman Warfare on Film" and what inspired the creation of this volume?

Armed conflict is ubiquitous in cinematic revivals of the classical world. Fighting of some sort (from duels and skirmishes to large-scale land and sea battles) is so central to almost every film set in ancient Greece and Rome that it is not a hyperbole to argue that warfare and celluloid antiquity are synonymous. Yet until now this tautology, although fundamental, had received only sporadic attention. The anthology was inspired by the desire to fill this vacuum in contemporary scholarship. The volume represents the first attempt to examine the topic diachronically and in depth through a wide range of case studies drawn from various periods, countries, genres, and film industries. 

Some of the key questions raised in the book as a whole include: to what extent and for what purpose are ancient accounts of warfare reworked when they are transferred from the page to the screen? What artistic purposes, commercial goals, and contemporary political agendas are cinematic recreations of ancient battles subjected to? How have the visual tropes used in cinema evolved during the course of the medium’s history? Is the iconography of the celluloid battlefield characterized by continuity or rupture?  Does film distinguish between Greece and Rome in terms of armor, weaponry, and tactics, or do these two cultures collapse into a singular antiquity on the big screen? What aesthetic and ideological relationship do the case studies discussed in this volume have with cinematic treatments of armed conflict set in different historical times and how are they situated within the war film genre in general? Why does the study of ancient warfare on screen matter for students and researchers in Classics and History? 

In the context of ancient Greek and Roman warfare, how do films contribute to the shaping and reshaping of historical narratives? How does the cinematic medium influence our perception of these historical events?

It has long been argued that films set in the Greco-Roman world use the past as a prism through which to reflect critically on the present. Historical narratives are recreated on the big screen to bear an obvious relation to contemporary reality, not to be faithful to ancient sources. Cinema invites viewers to believe that underneath the helmet and breastplate of an ancient warrior who fought at Thermopylae, Roman Britain, or North Africa one can a modern soldier who fought in Normandy, Iraq, or Afghanistan. The case studies examined in the volume demonstrate that the contemporary issues and events that have given shape to ancient warfare on film range from the rise and fall of Fascism in Italy, World War II, and Cold War to the Italian and British colonization of Africa and India, the Greek dictatorship, and the War on Terror. Behind Darius in Oliver Stone’s Alexander released in 2004 the viewer is invited to see Osama bin Laden, while Scipio Africanus in Carmine Gallone’s 1937 film is a figure for Benito Mussolini. Simply put, the classical past is fashioned to serve the ideological needs of the present and ancient Mediterranean battlefields become an allegory for modern battlegrounds across the globe. 

Films set in the classical world are not only informed by the sociopolitical climate of the period in which they are made. Historical narratives are also reshaped to suit the aesthetic values and economic conditions of the film industry. Because cinema is a form of art geared toward profit, to ensure the widest audience appeal possible, combat scenes are visually recreated to offer ticket-buyers the illusion of re-witnessing the past, a reassurance, that is, that from the comfort of their seat they can watch vast armies fight against each other the way they actually did back in antiquity. Ancient warfare on film, therefore, provides an opportunity, and at the same time an obligation, for studios to challenge artistic boundaries and break new ground by implementing innovative audiovisual technologies in order to validate their claim to battlefield realism and create a truly immersive experience for spectators. Briefly put, academic history submits to the goals of cinematic art, and what we watch on the big screen is what I call cine-history. 

The book discusses cinema's revisionist approach to textual and visual sources. Could you elaborate on how filmmakers reinterpret historical material and the impact this has on our understanding of ancient Greek and Roman warfare?

As noted above, mainstream cinema’s primary concern is not accuracy, but to generate revenue. To this end, the medium favors combative action over other, less entertaining aspects of military life. For example, although Roman soldiers, when they went on a campaign, spent more time at the camp (cooking, cleaning, and training to boredom) than on the battlefield, pitched battles receive far greater attention on film to the extent that modern viewers are encouraged to believe that the life of the ancient soldier revolved constantly around fighting and military operations. 

Another misconception, which stems from modern popular culture, is that the sword was the ancient weapon par excellence and has thus become the standard iconographic feature of the protagonist; the spear, when registered on screen, is associated with the anonymous soldiers. A third example that demonstrates that the celluloid battlefield is subjected to the conventions of the medium is that, to appear spectacular and ensure wide audience appeal, ancient warfare is almost always portrayed as an engagement between nation-states, involving two peer or near-peer adversaries with comparable military forces that clash on land and/or sea in order to assert their superiority over each other. There are times, of course, when, for the sake of drama, the two combatants are modeled on the David-Goliath pattern, but asymmetric warfare in the sense of insurgencies of suppressed social and ethnic groups occupies almost no space in cinematic antiquity. Similarly, big screen Greeks and Romans are customarily portrayed as fighting against external enemies; civil war in antiquity does not seem to interest Hollywood or is resemanticized on screen. For example, the battle of Actium in the various 20th-century versions of Cleopatra is not depicted as a clash between two Roman generals, whose feud divided the Italian people, but as one between two empires, Rome and Egypt.

Can you share some intriguing case studies or examples discussed in the book that highlight unique or unexpected approaches filmmakers have taken when representing ancient Greek and Roman warfare?

The volume examines celluloid recreations of ancient Greek and Roman warfare over a large span of time: from the embryonic days of the medium to the most recent years. This diachronic investigation demonstrates that whereas the ideological charge of combat scenes is always contingent on the sociopolitical climate that surrounds a film’s production, what differs from period to period is the approach of individual directors to the aesthetics of war. Such treatments seek to mark a point of departure from the canon established by previous engagements with the classical world on screen and can be labelled as unique when assessed in connection with their generic precursors. It is how warfare is portrayed, not what it is meant through it, that sets a film apart. It is through striking and novel visuals that filmmakers seek to cause a sensation among critics and viewers, and armed conflict is key to this artistic ambition. 

To give an example: the exceptionality of Gladiator, when one compares it to big screen revivals of Roman history from the Cold War era, lies in the brutality with which it depicts armed conflict. The amount of bloodshed, violence, and the graphic details included in the initial combat scene alone were unprecedented in the history of cinematic antiquity. Not to mention that no film from the 1950s and early 1960s set in ancient Rome opened with a combat scene that is more than ten minutes long. What is radical about Gladiator’s release at the turn of the millennium is that the classical world returned to the big screens after it went into hibernation for 36 years with a film that reminded spectators of the centrality of warfare in ancient times by means of a scene full of gore and carnage inserted at its very beginning. 

Another example is the most recent version of Ben-Hur. Whereas the 1959 blockbuster projects a rather sanitized image of a naval battle in antiquity with no blood shown on screen, the 2016 release deploys the same scene to sensationalize butchery. Trauma, both physical and mental, suffered by civilians as well as the combatants themselves is also registered more freely on film. While the 1956 Alexander the Great is not concerned with the psychological impact of constant engagement in warfare on its title character, the 2004 version by Stone emphasizes it. These are some of the several case studies discussed in the anthology that illustrate how directors use ancient warfare in an attempt to break away from an aesthetic tradition. 

In compiling this volume, what were some of the challenges you and the contributors faced in researching and analyzing the diverse range of films and historical contexts covered in the book?

The volume does not seek to examine films in order to identify the distortions, anachronisms, and inaccuracies when ancient warfare is brought to the modern screen. While there are some chapters that address such academic concerns by measuring cinematic accounts against the historical record, the goal of the collection as a whole is to situate case studies within their sociopolitical and artistic context in order to explain why cinema has diachronically invested in armed conflict in the classical world and why ancient battles have had such a powerful hold on the imagination of modern viewers. Given this objective, the main challenge I faced as an editor was to ensure that the chapters I solicited represent different time periods, film genres, and industries. From the beginning, I envisioned a volume that would not be all about Hollywood, but would bring American films into dialogue with European cinema and enrich our understanding of the reception of ancient warfare in modern popular culture through a comparison of productions by big studios to those by independent filmmakers. Although inevitably contemporary releases have greater appeal to audiences and therefore tend to dominate scholarly discourses, my goal (and challenge) was to put together a volume that would bring to visibility case studies from the silent and interwar eras, which have attracted less critical attention. Although the collection is not organized in chronological terms, but according to thematic commonalities, the aspiration was to present the reader with a balanced reflection on the cinematic afterlife of ancient warfare by drawing from any many diverse case studies as possible.

A challenge faced by some contributors working on old and rare films was to secure images of appropriate resolution for publication. I am grateful to Brill for allowing us to include more than 80 illustrations, an uncommonly high number. 

As the editor, what future directions do you envision for the study of ancient warfare on film? Are there emerging trends or areas that you believe warrant further exploration within this field?

The volume comprises almost 600 pages and although it examines a wide range of case studies, its aim is not to exhaust the material but to lay the foundations for a more systematic exploration of ancient Greek and Roman warfare in modern popular culture. There are many films we could not consider, and I am confident that there will be researchers who will use them to advance and/or challenge the findings of the individual chapters. For example, there are more than two hundred peplum films, and fighting is a key theme in this Italian filone

The volume focuses on big screen receptions, but there are small screens (e.g., television and video games) that deserve attention, in their own right and in relation to cinema. The volume suggests some broad paths for research, and there are chapters included in it that demonstrate how films dealing with war in Greco-Roman antiquity can be brought into a fruitful dialogue with films set in modern times.  Such comparative readings can further the interaction between Classics/History and other disciplines (e.g. Film Studies, Global Studies, Media Studies), and prove that the classical past still matters.