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Statue of Emperor Claudius

How accurate were the portrayal of these Roman emperors on film?

Image: Statue of Emperor Claudius as Jupiter in the Vatican Museum | Viacheslav Lopatin /

Roman emperors have appeared on the silver screen from the earliest days of motion pictures. Often portrayed as power-hungry, bloodthirsty tyrants or snivelling, ineffective cowards, nuance and accuracy are often absent from these depictions.

In reality, Rome’s leaders were not always like the cartoonish villains and lunatics we see on screen. Here we take a look at how Hollywood has portrayed Roman emperors in the movies compared to what they were really like.

Caligula - Caligula

In 1979’s Caligula, the title character is portrayed by the British actor Malcolm McDowell. Caligula is depicted as an insane, perverted, tyrannical monster. At the end of the film, Caligula’s bloodthirsty, depraved tenure as emperor is brought to an abrupt end when he is brutally assassinated.

The real Caligula was not a million miles away from the character McDowell plays in the film. For the first six months of his reign, Caligula looked to be shaping up to be a good emperor. However, his behaviour changed pretty much overnight and he became an erratic, paranoid, cruel tyrant.

Caligula declared himself a god, inflicted vile punishments on anyone who he perceived to be an enemy, almost made his horse a senator and was generally violent, unpredictable and depraved. As is depicted in the film, Caligula was assassinated by his own guards after just four years on the throne.

Commodus - Gladiator

Commodus had some big shoes to fill when he inherited the throne from his father Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD at the age of 18. Sadly, just as he was portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Commodus wasn’t interested in ruling the empire with the same stoicism and level-headedness as his father. Instead, he was erratic, violent and self-indulgent.

Thinking himself as the reincarnation of Hercules, Commodus set great store with his physical prowess, even indulging in gladiatorial combat, just as he does in Scott’s film. However, unlike in Gladiator, Commodus was not killed in the Colosseum by a vengeful Roman General. Extremely unpopular, he was assassinated in 192 AD and is today remembered as a wasteful tyrant who squandered his legendary father’s legacy.

Julius Caesar - Various

Julius Caesar has been portrayed on film numerous times over the years. He first made an appearance in the 1917 film Julius Caesar and has been depicted many times since, most notably in 1963’s Cleopatra and 1964’s Carry On Cleo, where he was portrayed by Rex Harrison and Kenneth Williams respectively.

In reality, Caesar was much closer to the charming, witty character Harrison plays than the snivelling coward Kenneth Williams portrays him as. A brilliant military leader and popular statesman, Caesar’s growing power did not sit well with Rome’s elite, and he was assassinated in 44 BC, leading to the downfall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. Sadly, he did not cry out, ‘Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!’ as he was being murdered.

Marcus Aurelius - Gladiator

Portrayed by Richard Harris in Gladiator as a world-weary old man who is eventually smothered to death by his son Commodus, Marcus Aurelius is regarded as one of Rome’s greatest emperors. Ascending the throne in 161 AD, his reign was marked by near-constant warfare. Despite this, and the huge expense and loss of life involved, Marcus Aurelius was a popular emperor who had a reputation for wisdom and fairness, and as a philosopher whose ‘Meditations’ is still studied to this day.

Whilst he is depicted as being murdered by Commodus in Gladiator, in real life he actually died of unknown causes in his military camp near what is now modern-day Vienna. He was immediately declared a god and his ashes were returned to Rome, where they remained in the mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian until the Visigoths sacked the city in 410 AD.

Claudius - Caligula

In Caligula, Claudius is portrayed by the Italian actor Giancarlo Badessi as a mentally deficient, snivelling coward who is elevated to the position of emperor following Caligula’s assassination.

The idea that Claudius was a hapless simpleton has dogged his reputation for centuries. Claudius was actually an intelligent man and an astute politician who oversaw legal reforms at home and the expansion of the empire abroad with the conquest of Britain. Sadly, his physical deformities and the fact he was easy to manipulate by the women in his life earned him a reputation as a fool.

This perception of Claudius endured into modern times, and it is only relatively recently that he has come to be seen as a capable, intelligent leader.

Nero - Quo Vadis

1951’s Quo Vadis is the story of a Roman commander who falls in love with a Christian woman during the reign of Emperor Nero. Peter Ustinov portrays Nero as a vile tyrant hell-bent on persecuting Christians.

The real Nero was, by all accounts, pretty similar to the cruel villain Ustinov portrays in the film. After the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, Nero, looking to draw blame away from himself, pointed the finger at Christians, initiating a brutal crackdown that infamously saw some of them being fed to the lions in the Colosseum. Nero would later go on to have his own mother murdered before committing suicide in 68 AD. He is today seen as one of the worst emperors Rome ever had.

Tiberius - Caligula

One of three emperors to be portrayed in the 1979 film Caligula, Peter O’Toole plays Tiberius as a sickly and depraved old man, riddled with venereal disease, whiling away the final days of his life cavorting with naked men and watching depraved sex shows in his palace on the island of Capri. He is eventually murdered by the Praetorian Guard Macro.

In reality, Tiberius was a skilled military leader and politician who had ruled Rome well in his younger years, focusing on administrative reform of the empire and maintaining stability. Sadly, his reputation was ruined when he withdrew to Capri in later life, leaving Rome to be run by his old friend Sejanus, a cruel and corrupt man who abused his position, undoing much of Tiberius’s good work. While it has never been definitively proven, rumour has it that, just as he was in the film, Tiberius was murdered by Macro in 37 AD.