Caligula (_____, seated) living the dream as Roman Emperor. Image: Baúl del Castillo

Caligula (Jay Robinson, seated) livin’ the dream as Roman Emperor. Image: Baúl del Castillo

Let’s talk about Roman Emperors.

They’re often viewed as despots – and despots, by definition, are unreasonable people. They’re unwilling to accept critical feedback; they don’t like to lose, even at card games; and they treat the state treasury like a piggy bank.

But if you’re a leader preoccupied with carving out your place in history, you can’t be a Nice Guy. Nope. You gotta be feared to be revered.

We can look to the 1953 Cinemascope epic, The Robe, for valuable instruction on Despot-ery. This film, starring Richard Burton and Jean Simmons, has everything you want in a wide-screen wonder: bright colours, fascinating footwear and lyrical dialogue.

It also has the perfect Roman Emperor Role Model.

In The Robe, Burton stars as Marcellus, a drinking-and-womanizing tribune (military officer) who is assigned to oversee the crucifixion of a popular religious figure (read: political traitor), one Jesus of Nazareth.

Burton perfunctorily carries out the crucifixion (you know, just another day at the office), but experiences debilitating pangs of conscience immediately afterwards. He associates his panic attacks with the Nazarene’s robe, which he believes to be the harbinger of his own fate.

Victor Mature is fervent – and defiant. Image: MonsterHunter

Victor Mature is a fervent – and defiant – Greek slave. Image: MonsterHunter

The Robe was the first Cinemascope film, and it gives us an impressive but slightly seedy view of Roman society. The opening scene shows us a marketplace where people from across the known world are buying and selling human beings, mostly women. Burton, as narrator, muses, “Some say we [Romans] are looters…who create nothing ourselves.”

Tiberius is the Emperor du jour, but he’s getting old, so his adopted son, Caligula, is taking over the empire’s affairs.

It is Caligula, played to smarmy perfection by Jay Robinson, in whom we are most interested. Robinson as Caligula is an inspired casting choice. He has the smug, irritating temperament of a person who doesn’t answer to anyone. His whole persona sneers, You can’t touch me. Haha!

Robinson’s performance is compelling and instructive. Through him, we can glean Caligula’s Life Lessons for Emperors:

  1. Potential enemies are everywhere. People are always scheming to depose you, so be prepared to Kick People Out. For example, when Caligula gets in a snit, he exiles Burton’s character to Palestine, knowing Burton may not survive the experience.
  2. Perpetrate the Class System. You can’t hog all the state wealth; valuable allies need to be kept in good humour. Notice that in every oppressive political system, the Emperor & Co. enjoy the best of everything, while the poor pay the bills. It’s not personal; it’s Business.
  3. Censor, censor, censor. What’s the value in allowing people to talk and think as they please? People might get the Wrong Idea about you, which never ends well.
  4. Be the boss of all religions. You must be seen as accommodating when occupying foreign lands and religions. Let folks believe whatever they want, but Make An Example of those who refuse to accept you as the Top Banana, both politically and spiritually.
Robinson... Image: Movies ala Mark

Robinson taunts Richard Burton (left). Image: Movies ala Mark

Now, the job title of “Roman Emperor” is uncommon these days, but one doesn’t need look too hard to see modern-day incarnations.

As for the real Caligula, he was emperor for four years. At first he was popular because folks believed anyone was better than Tiberius. But Tiberius was probably looking pretty good once Caligula increased the number of public executions and flagrantly spent state funds on his whims.

(Unsurprisingly, Caligula was assassinated. Conspiring to murder him was, apparently, a popular Roman pastime.)

The Robe is based on the 1942 novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, and was the second-highest-grossing film of 1953. If your hobby is studying ancient despots, this film is for you.

The Robe: Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature. Directed by Henry Koster. Written by Albert Maltz and Philip Dunne. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1953, Technicolor, 133 mins.

This post is part of the The Sword & Sandal Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini. Click HERE to see the fab entries.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

36 Comment on “Life Lessons for Roman Emperors

  1. Pingback: Announcing The Sword & Sandal Blogathon! – MOON IN GEMINI

  2. Pingback: Sword and Sandal Blogathon – Day 1 – MOON IN GEMINI

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