Ancient Rome


Essay on Representations and Images

The assignment:  Write a 3- to 4-page essay using depictions of the ancient Roman world to take a position on the representations of ancient cultural ideas and beliefs, following one of the following two options.


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Option 1

Two pieces in a museum

How a culture sees abstract ideas (masculinity, virtue, old age, divinity, and so on) is often reflected in its artwork. What can two different works of art depicting the same idea, but from different times or places in the Roman world, tell us about how the cultures that produced them?

For this option, you need to choose two works of art from the ancient world that (a) represent the same idea or concept but (b) come either from different periods or from different places in the ancient Roman world.

In your essay, compare three things that these works have in common, using those comparisons to make an argument about what these two artists believed in and the insights this gives us into the times and places they came from.

Choosing your subjects

  • Your two works of art must represent the same idea or concept. For example, you can choose two little girls, two warriors, two fertility goddesses, etc. The idea is to look for how similarities and differences in representations of the same idea tell us about the cultural beliefs and expectations that shaped the artists and their own culturally-conditioned visions of that idea.
  • Your works of art must be from two different places or two different periods in the Roman world (before 500 CE). This allows you to talk about two separate societies and how they represent the same concepts differently. The two pieces can be in any visual medium: sculpture, painting, relief, etc. They do not have to be in the same medium as long as they are depictions of the same idea or concept.
  • Ideally, you should experience the artwork face-to-face by attending a museum in person. Possible venues include: Metropolitan Museum’s Greek and Roman Art Collection; and Fordham Museum of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Art. You are, of course, not limited to these venues, and you are not limited to New York. If you are not able to attend a museum in person because of ongoing restrictions, you may find imagery of artworks that meet the requirements on museum websites instead.

Writing your paper

  • Choose three aspects of the works you can discuss for both pieces that seem to reflect how the artist felt about the subject and what the subject stood for.
    • Some possibilities include facial expression, dress, use of technique or medium, stiffness/fluidity, apparent strength/weakness, idealism/realism, or any other elements offering some kind of insight into what the artist was trying to convey. Describe and discuss your subjective impressions of these three aspects in the two works.
    • For each aspect, compare how it manifests in the first piece; then talk about how the second piece is similar or different and in what way; and finally talk about what these similarities or differences tell us about what each artist believed about their subject and what that might tell us about the cultural beliefs they came from in relation to the subject being depicted.
    • For example: say the works you’ve chosen are two sculptures depicting a goddess of love from different times and places, and one has a crafty expression while the other has an innocent expression. The different facial expressions can be used to talk about how each artist, and the cultures they came from, might have thought about things like the gods’ attitudes toward their roles in creating relationships between mortals; the nature of love; the motivations of the gods, etc.
  • Make an argument about how consistently the same core idea was seen in the two times or places that produced these two works. If art is an expression of cultural values, what do the differences between these works tell you about the respective cultures they come from? What do their similarities tell you about what these ancient cultures have in common?
  • You do not need to preface your essay with background about the periods, the media used, etc. This essay is about your subjective reactions to these two dspecific works and what you believe they are telling you about the beliefs and social expectations of the cultures they came from.
  • On a separate “Works Discussed” page after your essay:
    • List the title of each work, the artist, the approximate date it was created, the city or region it came from originally, and the name of the museum gallery where the work can be found.
    • Paste in photographs of the items. If it’s permitted at the museum, take a picture of the items while you’re there. If it’s not, find pictures of those specific items on the museum’s web site.

Option 2

The ancient world on film

Every depiction of an historical event, whether in prose, poetry, painting, theater, or film, involves an artist using history to convey his or her own beliefs. What do the creators of the film and the authors of the source material it was based on want you to believe?

For this option, you need to choose a film that is set in the ancient Roman world (before 500 CE) and that is based on an ancient primary source. In your essay, compare the agenda of the filmmakers with the agenda of the authors of the primary source. Describe and discuss the similarities and differences in how these creators reshaped this event for their own purposes. Use these similarities and differences to make an argument about the ways in which this particular event is leveraged to impose ideas on audiences and about what this event means to the people who create art about it.

Choosing your subjects

  • First, choose and watch any feature-length film set in the ancient Roman world. You can also choose two episodes of a television series set in the Roman world.
  • Then find the ancient primary source material it was based on and read it. For example, if you chose the movie Gladiator, which is set the reign of Commodus, the primary source you’d need would be the main ancient accounts of the life and times of Commodus. Your primary source(s) must come from the ancient world (before 500 CE).
  • Some suggestions for possible films or series and their corresponding sources are below. The list is not exhaustive, and you are not limited to this list as long as the film you choose is set in the Roman world and is based on ancient primary sources.

Writing your paper

  • Choose three moments or depictions from the film and find the corresponding events or depictions in the primary source.
    • For each moment or depiction, describe and discuss how it appears in the film and how it is presented similarly or differently in the primary source material.
    • For example:
      • In the movie 300, Xerxes and the Persians are depicted in a very distinctive and heavy-handed manner. If this is one of your three topics, could describe and discuss what tropes and visual and dialog cues the filmmakers were using to suggest how we should think of the Persians in the film, and why the filmmakers might have chosen to represent the Persians this way as part of their overall point about these events.
      • Meanwhile, Herodotos’s presentation of the Persians is very different, which you can use to discuss what Herodotos wanted us to think about the Persians and the role he saw them as playing in this war.
      • After that, you could discuss how and why the two depictions are different and what this means for their two different perspectives on differences between Greeks and Persians.
  • Use these similarities or differences to make an argument about (a) the agenda of the primary source author and how it compares to the agenda of the filmmakers, and (b) the ways this historical event is used by others to present their own ideas, and what this tells us about the shape and meaning of this event’s impact and legacy on history.
    • Please take note:This essay is about the agenda of the primary source author as much as the filmmakers’. Do not use the source to “fact check” the film and list what it got “wrong”. You must consider the primary source to be at least as skewed, manipulative, and agenda-driven as the film.
  • On a separate “Works Discussed” page after your essay, list the title of film, year, director, stars and studio. Then list the book or books you drew your written evidence from, using standard citation style. The references to the primary source must also be properly cited in the text as usual.

Some possibilities for the film and sources option include, but are not limited to, the following. Links to most of these primary sources can be found on the ancient texts page on my website.

Rome and the Roman Empire

Film Subject / Possible primary sources to compare
Agora (2009)Hypatia
Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, 7.15; John of NikiĆ», Chronicle 84.87-103; The Suda, Life of Hypatia
Attila (2001)Attila
Jordanes, Origin and Deeds of the Goths 36-53; Procopius, History of the Wars 3.4
Boudica (2003)Boudica
Tacitus, Annals 14.29–39, Agricola; Cassius Dio, Roman History 62
Caligula (1980) [warning: explicit sex]Caligula
Suetonius, Caligula; Cassius Dio, Roman History 59
The Centurion (1961)Battle of Corinth
Polybius, The Histories book 38
Centurion (2010)Roman Britain
Tacitus, Agricola
Cleopatra (1963, 1999)Cleopatra, Caesar, Antony
Plutarch, Caesar and Antony
Coriolanus (1963)Coriolanus
Plutarch, Coriolanus; Livy 2.33–2.40
Decline of an Empire (2014)St. Katherine of Alexandria
Saints lives of Saint Katharine of Alexandria
Druids (2001)Vercingetorix, Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars book 7; Cassius Dio 40:33–41, 43:19; Plutarch, Caesar 25–27
Duel of Champions (1961)Horatius
Livy 1.24-26
The Eagle (2011)Roman Britain
Tacitus, Agricola
Empire (2005 Mini-Series)Augustus
Suetonius, Augustus; Nicolas of Damascus, Life of Augustus; Cassius Dio, 45–56
The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)Rome under Commodus
Cassius Dio 73; Herodian 1.15; Historia Augusta, “Commodus”
The First King: Birth of an Empire (2019)Romulus and Remus
Livy 1.4-6; Dionysius 1.71-87; Plutarch, Romulus; Ovid, Fasti; Appian, Roman History book 1
Gladiator (2000)Rome under M. Aurelius, Commodus
Cassius Dio 73; Herodian 1.15; Historia Augusta, “Commodus”
Hannibal (1959) or Hannibal (2006)Hannibal Barca, 2d Punic War
Cornelius Nepos, Hannibal; Livy 21-30; Plutarch, Fabius
Hero of Rome (1964)Scaevola, Lars Porsena, formation of Roman Republic
Livy 2.1-21
I, Claudius (1976) [1-2 episodes]Claudius
Tacitus, Annals 11–12; Suetonius, Claudius
Julius Caesar (1953, 1970, 2002)Julius Caesar
Plutarch, Caesar; Suetonius, Divine Julius
Messalina (1960)Messalina. Claudius
Suetonius, Claudius 26-29, 37; Tacitus Annals 11-12; Cassius Dio 60-61
Pompeii: The Last Day (2003) or Pompeii (2014)Eruption of Vesuvius, Roman Italy
Pliny the Younger’s letters to Tacitus, #65 and #66
Quo Vadis? (1951, 2001)Persecution of Christians under Nero
Tacitus, Annals 13–16; Suetonius, Nero; Cassius Dio 61–63
Rome (2005–2007) [use 1-2 episodes]Collapse of the Roman Republic
Various (see me)
Fellini Satyricon (1969)Imperial Rome, homosexuality
Petronius, Satyricon
Scipio Africanus: The Defeat of Hannibal (1937)Scipio Africanus, 2d Punic War
Polybius 10; Cornelius Nepos, Hannibal; Livy 26-29; Valerius Maximus 3.7; Plutarch, Marcellus and Fabius
Siege of Syracuse (1960)Archimedes, Siege of Syracuse
Plutarch, Marcellus; Livy 21-23
The Sign of the Cross (1932)Persecution of Christians under Nero
Tacitus, Annals 13–16; Suetonius, Nero; Cassius Dio 61–63
Spartacus (1960) or Spartacus: Blood and Sand (2010)Spartacus, Roman galdiators/slavery
Appian, Roman History 116–120; Plutarch, Crassus 8–11