Life Lessons for Roman Emperors

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.



  1. Oh, this post made me LAUGH. In a good way, too. Robinson’s performance is so obscenely off the map that he’s my default villain inside voice when I’m thinking not so kind thoughts about first world issues. That makes me chuckle as I deal with stuff that makes others cranky. Line waiting is much easier with a little Caligula inside whining away. Trivial Trivia: Google “Beyond Bizarre – Jay Robinson” for a surprise (he hosted the TV series of the same name from 1997)/

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bahaha! “Default villain inside voice” = BRILLIANT. That’s a superb idea, and I might steal it.

      As for “Beyond Bizarre” I did a quick online search and – Whoa! I think I winced all the way through the introduction video. Bizarre indeed!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yeah, I used to atch the show just for Jay’s commentary, but yeesh. Sitting through body mods, treppanning, and other cringe-worthy stuff certainly was an education.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What a fun piece. As a teenager I read Douglas’s novel, and was absolutely enthralled by it; I have no idea if the same’d be true today.

    This film, starring Richard Burton and Jean Simmons, has everything you want in a wide-screen wonder

    Yep: Jean Simmons. Did I mention this crush I’ve had for the past fifty years or so? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can see why a person would have a crush on Jean Simmons. She’s beautiful and talented.

      As for Douglas’s novel, I’m going to look for it in the library. I had no idea he was such a prolific writer.


  3. I’ve never been able to sit all the way through The Robe. Part of my problem is that I’m allergic to Victor Mature! In fact, reading your post was a great deal more entertaining than the film! Have a lovely weekend, Ruth!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting article!! Loved of your analysis of Caligula, or rather Jay Robinson as Caligula!! I watched ROBE, over a decade, and loved the final dialogues by Burton. If I remember correctly, about Jesus, he says something like, “I don’t know whether he made a lame man walk, or made a blind person see; but I know, he did not make a man, or a person blind; and it’s such a man we crucified” (or something like that, making it more realistic, about an innocent man put on cross. Without making it sound overtly a godly/religious flick.
    Have you seen CALIGULA (1979), that was really good as well, though not excellent!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is so funny. It reminded me when I took a Roman history class in college, and was reading with stunned disbelief at how little it took to appear a “threat” and worthy of a vile execution. Pity the fool who takes to the colors the emperor considered royal….

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This was a delicious treat to read! Loved the life lessons, I hope I can follow some of them (mwahaha).
    Maniac leaders always called my attention while studying history. The Roman Empire was one of my favorite subjects, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Seeing the beautiful shots included above makes me wish there were venues where some of these old films could be seen on the big screen. They require a huge screen in a darkened theater to be fully appreciated. Jean Simmons is a beauty no matter where she’s viewed but put her on the big screen and she’s absolutely stunning. I do agree with your assessment of Robinson’s performance but when I hear the name “Caligula”, I think of John Hurt in “I, Claudius.” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t yet seen “I, Claudius”, but so many people refer to it, I need to track it down to catch up! 😉

      Yes, these grand films do need to be seen on the big screen. When I was at the TCM Film Fest this past spring, I saw “King of Kings” in Grauman’s Egyptian theatre and it was STUNNING. I think there were 12 other people there, in the entire audience, but no matter. It was thrilling to see a grand epic the way it was meant to be seen.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Let me try that again (hating autocorrect with every keystroke) …
        As a product of the 70s, the video quality leaves much to be desired but the plot mixes just the right amount of fiction with historical fact to make a very entertaining tale. You’ll be amazed, too, to see the actors that took part.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Love this post! Jay Robinson’s Caligula is one of the reasons I chose to do Demetrius and the Gladiators for the blogathon and you describe his character and performance perfectly. (Yes, I’m kind of jealous.)

    Thank you so much for contributing to the blogathon. And watch I, Claudius! It contains even more life lessons for emperors. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great post, Ruth! I loved your life lessons for emperors. I’m sure that will be very helpful for future wannabe emperors so they don’t have to think too hard about what to do after they take over! 🙂 Even though I don’t usually like movies that are made about this time period, your reviews always make me want to see the movie so I can see the characters you have described. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is one of the first 1950s Bible epics I ever saw, so it has a special place in my heart. It was one of my grandmother’s fave movies, so there’s that too.

      This one has interesting characters with lots of Motive. I think it’s quite well done.


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