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The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964): Or, the Multicultural Dream That Was Rome

1,071 words

Cultural hygiene is a must. Every day, you must try to consume culture that is educational, that elevates your soul, but also culture which puts you in sync with your society. That is a tough dilemma.

Thus, I am on the lookout for old, good films. Generally speaking, older is better.

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is an amusing epic, especially if you can enjoy the Sixties kitsch. The film is attractive in that it does try to show some aspects of Roman life which most films ignore: the animal sacrifices for omens, the Roman saluting, the enthusiastic “Hails Caesars.” 

There is a lot of fascist energy in this movie.

The film is, at the same time, shockingly politicized. The basic message is that the Roman Empire fell because its people and rulers became too corrupt and selfish to embrace the glories of multiculturalism. Really.

Like the later Gladiator (2000), The Fall of the Roman Empire focuses on the final days of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius and the misrule of his tyrannical son Commodus. The film features gentiles, most beautiful gentiles: Alec Guinness as a wise and stoic Marcus Aurelius, Sophia Loren as his passionate and theatrically dramatic daughter Lucilla, and Stephen Boyd as the blue-eyed, blond-haired, too-honorable, and somewhat dimwitted general Livius. Omar Sharif is typecast as a creepy Levantine (the King of Armenia).

The fascist energy and egalitarian-globalist message are summed up in an impressive early military parade scene, with diverse units from all the nations of the vast Roman Empire appearing to salute their emperor. These include Judeans (with prominent stars of David on their shields) and Africans (including a black or two), both saluted by Marcus. The emperor, strangely if somewhat humorously, cannot remember the names of all the officers and nations appearing before him, including “Pericles of Athens.”

Few mainstream films will have featured so many unironic and positively-portrayed Roman salutes and “hails” as in this film.

Marcus gives a speech to the troops: their unity despite their diversity is the strength of the Roman empire, “whatever the color of your skin” [sic], as “a family of equal nations.” Almost as if the gods themselves wish to strike down Marcus for these words, the emperor feels a sudden pain in his chest, presaging his death.

In truth, the cosmopolitan sentiment is not alien to historical Marcus Aurelius. As a Stoic, Marcus considered himself to be both a citizen of Rome and of the universe, and like many people, tended to underestimate the role of ancestry in shaping human reason. However the phrasing is blatantly a wink to the then-boiling racial controversies of the 1960s. The Romans never, as far as I am aware, discussed “skin color” as a kind of prejudice to be overcome.

In the film, Marcus dies. His psychopathically selfish and unstable son Commodus rules in his stead. The major issue: will the empire accept the Germanic tribesmen as equals and fellow Roman citizens, rather than wage constant war against them? Of course, the wise and philosophical Marcus would have taken them in, we are told. The issue is summed in an incredible scene in the Roman Senate, in which the corrupt Cleander (at 06:50) is made to voice the “fascist” position with stunning clarity: “Equality, freedom, peace: who is it that uses these words but Greeks and Jews and slaves?” To which a liberal answers: “Honorable Fathers, we have changed the world – can we not change ourselves?”

The Senate decides in favor of the Germans and universal brotherhood. The Greek philosopher Timonides, the voice of reason, a man who has to overcome Roman bigotry against Greeks, celebrates: “Now can we say to our Senate, to our empire, to the whole world, look! Here we meet in friendship, the blond people from the north and the dark people from the south. What we have done here could be done the whole world over.”

The Germans are all long-haired red-headed and blonde beasts, practically cave-men. The battle scenes are, to my postmodern eyes, rather awkward bloodless brawls. (The film has aged badly in other ways: e.g. a rather ludicrous chariot race complete with close-ups. But you can enjoy these scenes if you don’t take them too seriously.)

The Nords are happily settled within the Empire and begin to prosper, only to be irrationally cut down by Commodus’ soldiers. Timonides tries to tell the soldiers:

[The Germans] have become your brothers. Let them live in peace, they are Romans now. . . . The whole northern people will answer with death and fire. Their hatred will live for centuries to come. Rivers of Roman blood will pay for this. You will make nations of killers out of them . . .

. . . before being unceremoniously struck down.

Und so weiter. Long story short, Rome was too corrupt and selfish for Marcus’ universalist dream, and so was doomed to fall.

Cut to credits.

The Fall of the Roman Empire was produced by Samuel Bronston, the nephew of Leon Trotsky (Lev Bronstein). The film cost $19 million but was a box office failure. According to Wikipedia, this bankrupted Bronston, who was then involved in various financial shenanigans and perjury.

The film was written by Ben Barzman, Philip Yordan, and Basilio Franchina.

Ben Barzman was a Canadian Jewish communist who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. His wife Norma had been a member of the Community Party U.S.A. Philip Yordan, also Jewish, was not blacklisted as a communist subversive himself, but would provide a respectable “front” for blacklisted writers like Bernard Gordon (also Jewish) to get their work out there.

Basilio Franchina was an Italian who notably gave Roberto Rossellini the idea for the 1948 pro-German anti-war film Germania anno zero.

It is normal for artists to project their contemporary issues onto the past. This should not overwhelm the past however, which is after all an interesting place in its own right. I was quite surprised (though I guess I should not be) at just how much the globalist message is apparent in an ostensibly apolitical film as old as this. Marcus Aurelius’ idealistic project in Gladiator, similarly cut short by his unjust death and Commodus’ misrule, is distinctly vaguer, being no more than an inchoate “dream that was Rome,” presumably some kind of non-corrupt, non-authoritarian “republic.” This is in keeping with the intellectual fuzziness and unchallengeable ideology hegemony of liberalism in the 1990s.

The gentiles, so beautiful, so soppy, they just say what you want.

 

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3 Comments

  1. Doug Huffman
    Posted December 3, 2017 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the pointer. We struggle for not-pornographic entertainment viewing; NO broadcast. Drawing the analogy of the Kenyan and his administration to Commodus is easy. Thanks for the suggestion to watch the background action.

    I learned a lot watching the background action behind the speeches from Germany in the early Twentieth Century.

  2. Peter Quint
    Posted December 2, 2017 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    You should watch “Cleopatra” starring Elizabeth Taylor. In it Cleopatra tries to talk Caesar into taking up Alexander The Greats mission of creating a one world order. After Caesar dies she tries to mold Marc Antony for the role.

  3. R_Moreland
    Posted December 2, 2017 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    Fall of the Roman Empire was as grand a piece of schlock to hit the silver screen in the 1960s, and for once the theme was not pagans versus Christians or another rehash of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The movie did show some of the issues which faced the Empire, notably the disruptions caused by repeated succession crises and the Praetorians auctioning off the imperial purple. Having said all that, Fall of the Roman Empire lacked truth in labeling. Of course, Rome did not fall in the era of Marcus Aurelius-Commodus, the late 2nd century AD (I should say 9th century ab urbe condita).

    The year usually used by historians for the Fall is AD 476, when the general Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus and declared himself King of Italy. Odoacer was the commander of Germanic mercenaries serving under Roman command, since Rome was increasingly using immigrants to serve in the wars in which its citizens did not want to fight. By Odoacer’s time the various peoples who had migrated across the frontiers since AD 376 had established their own kingdoms throughout the Western Empire, sometimes recognized by imperial writ – Goths, Franks, Vandals and so forth.

    The point is, it was the very policies advocated by the movie which caused just that Fall of Rome. While in the short term, barbarian peoples who settled within the Empire might make loyal clients and good soldiers, in the long run the Romans could not assimilate too many of them. The result was that the Western Empire self-destructed in the 5th century; i.e., the hardliners in the movie’s Senate scene were right.

    All this raises the question: why did the Empire need to bring in outsiders (undocumented immigrants to stretch a point) to work its land and fight its wars? The Fall has been debated for 1500 years, but let’s look at the situation in Europe and North America today, where we see trends such as low White birthrates and a bizarre form of pacifism in which the “other” is given preference over one’s own fellow citizens. Consider the general capitulation in Europe to third worlders staking out No Go Zones in its own ancient cities, and the inability of law enforcement to regain control in Malmo and points west. A lot like those petty barbarian kingdoms you see outlined on historical maps of late 5th century Rome, yes?

    I’ll go out on a limb and make an analogy with the religious controversies which wracked the Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. The establishment of Christianity as Rome’s state religion, the suppression of the older cults, and the non-stop infighting over trivial points of doctrine which to later observers often seem bizarre are antecedents to today’s political correctness which has become a state religion in the Western world with its own orthodoxy and suppression of heresies (e.g., race realism, nationalism) as well as the post-Trump progressive meltdown. Think of young Roman women on the Rhine’s west bank in AD 406 with signs reading “Welcome Refugees” as the Vandals cross over, preparatory to the latter’s cutting a swathe of destruction through cities such as Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Cologne). The Vandals perpetrated the original “teen violence,” no doubt.

    Another thing to consider is that in the 6th century AD the Eastern Emperor Justinian reconquered Africa, southern Spain and Italy from the various Germanic peoples who had established kingdoms in the West. Justinian restored at least the facade of a Roman Empire. It wasn’t until the 7th century when the Muslims exploded out of Arabia that the Empire permanently lost its territories in the Levant, Egypt, Africa and Spain. And with loss of control of the Mediterranean, the Empire found itself frequently besieged in its homelands. There’s a strong argument that Islam really brought an end to the Roman Empire.

    Fall of the Roman Empire bombed at the box office back in 1964. Perhaps audiences saw the analogy the producers were trying to make with America of the period and rejected any notion of a Fall. Well, this was just before various immigration and civil rights acts, the Vietnam War, and the loss of inner cities to rioters, race hustlers and gangbangers. Gladiator (2000) was something of a remake of Fall and became a hit, perhaps because by that time the universalist message had become more deeply embedded in the public consciousness. Either that, or audiences will always be fascinated by panem et circenses.

    All points to be pondered by a future Gibbon.

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