Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)



Director: Anthony Mann

Starring:  Sophia Loren (Lucilla), Stephen Boyd (Livius), Alec Guinness (Marcus Aurelius), James Mason (Timonides), Christopher Plummer (Commodus), Anthony Quayle (Verulus), John Ireland (Ballomar), Omar Sharif (King of Armenia), Mel Ferrer (Cleander), Eric Porter (Julianus),  Finlay Currie (Senator), Andrew Keir (Polybius), Douglas Wilmer (Niger), George Murcell (Victorinus), Norman Wooland (Virgilianus).

Many historians believe that the decline of Rome began under Emperor Commodus (who ruled from 180 to 192).  His father was the good emperor Marcus Aurelius (who ruled from 161 to 180).  The movie focuses on the Roman general Livius who was a loyal follower of the basic precepts of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  The general had great hopes for the Roman Empire.  But with the coming of Commodus, all his work is threatened and now in danger of falling apart. 


180 A.D. Marcus Aurelius leads his troops against Germanic tribes along the Danube.  Livius arrives.  He has been trying to capture the Germanic leader, Ballomar.  Lucilla, the daughter of Marcus Aurelius, prays for her father's health to improve.  Livius likes Lucilla and vice-versa.  There is a meeting with representatives of the different provinces of Rome: Egypt, Judea, Syria, Africa, Armenia, Britannia, Egypt, Gaul, Spain and other.   There are two main hostile areas: Persia and the Germanic tribes. 

Marcus Aurelius tells Lucilla that Commodus, her brother, should never be his heir.  Commodus is primarily interested in the gladiator games and other diversions.  Caesar says that the wants Livinius to be his successor.  Livinius is reluctant to assume the position, worried about a dispute with Commodus. 

Livinius travels to see Commodus in the snow country.  They meet and Livinius breaks the bad new to Caesar's son.  Commodus and Livinius participate in a battle with the Germanic tribes.  But Ballomar escapes and the reason given as the the gladiators fighting for Commodus were cowards. 

Now it's time for Lucilla to receive bad news.  Her father says that he brood over an alternative but could only make the decision to wed her to the King of Armenia to cement a relationship with Rome's eastern provinces.  Lucilla is very upset, but she submits to her father.

Commodus orders Livinius to stop the execution of his gladiators for cowardice.  Livinius responds that he is the commander of the Northern Armies.  They decide to settle it by a chariot race between them.  The chariots crash and the two start fighting.  Their men break up the fight. 

The men loyal to Commodus decide to poison him.  Cleander the blind man is given a knife coated with a poison on one side only.  The blind man goes to visit Caesar.  He cuts an apple in half and gives the poisoned side to Marcus Aurelius.  Caesar dies with no one but Lucilla and Livinius knowing his true wishes concerning his heir.  Livinius supports Commodus as the new emperor.  Lucilla marries the King of Armenia.  Livinius is sent north to fight the Germanic tribes. 

Commodus is thrilled to be Caesar with so much power.  The power goes to his head.  He declares that there will be lots of games and that taxes will be doubled on the province.  He is advised not to raise taxes because in the east there is famine and pestilence.  Caesar says:  "If there is the least resistance, I will destroy them." 

Livinius does battle with the forces of Ballomar.  The Germanic leader is captured  and placed in iron chains.  Themodides the Greek, a former adviser to Marcus Aurelius, stands up to German torture and convinces Ballomar to cooperate with the Romans. 

Lucilla pays a visit to Commodus.  She tells him that he is pushing the eastern provinces to rebellion.  She adds: "You want to smash everything father did."  This anger Commodus and he brings up old wounds.  He accuses his sister of never having loved their mother.  (Marcus Aurelius had accused her of adultery with another man.)  He asks Lucilla to stay with him.  He says:  "We'll find other ways to ensure the loyalty of Armenia."

Livinius arrives back in Rome.  He wants to speak to the senate, but Commodus asks him not to.  Commodus says to Livinius that if he abandons his plan he and Lucilla can always be together.  Livinius refuses.  Livinius sees Lucilla again.  She was mad at Livinius because she thought he had betrayed my father by turning his back on his plans for the future. 

In the senate, Livinius is know proclaimed Livinius Germanicus, conqueror of the Germans.  He tells the senate that he wants to give the Germans Roman citizenship and allow them to settle on Roman land.  There is a lot of resistance to the idea, but Thimodides convinces them of the soundness of the idea.  Ballomar and his people are allowed to establish a settlement on Roman land.

Commodus now feels that Livinius defeated him in an attempt to destroy Caesar.  He sends Livinius back the fight the Germanic tribes.  And Lucilla is sent back to her husband.  But it is not too long before Livinius gets a message from Commodus to return to Rome.  Rome is a land of famine and pestilence.  Commodus says that he has no one to turn to except Livinius.  The eastern armies of the Roman empire have sided with the eastern rebels.  Only the Northern Army is left to crush the rebellion.  Livinius is sent to Armenia with his army.  He sees Lucilla again.  She wants Livinius to side with the rebellion so that they can build their own empire in accordance to the wishes of her father.  But Livinius tells her that he cannot let her destroy the Roman empire. 

The King of Armenia tells Livinius that they have joined forces with the Persians. In the battle against the forces of Persia and Armenia, Livinius kills the King of Armenia.  He then rushes back to Lucilla and saves her in the nick of time, for the Armenian King had given orders that if anything happened to him the queen should be killed. 

Back in Rome, Livinius is the conqueror of Persia.  Commodus says he will share the throne with Livinius.  But Livinius rebels when Commodus tells him to carry out the executions of thousands of soldiers from each of the eastern provinces. He sends a message to Commodus: "There will be a new Rome or a new Caesar."  Fearing an attack, Commodus tells Cleander to gather together all the gold he can get his hands on.  The forces of Commodus kill Thimodides and destroy the German settlement.

Livinius gathers his army near the gates of Rome.  He tells Lucilla that if he has not returned by sunset, attack Rome.  Livinius again addresses the senate about there being a new Rome or a new Caesar.  The senate must not have liked the idea, because Livinius finds himself in chains tied to a post in the public arena along with Ballomar and others. 

Lucilla tries to get the army to attack but Cleander arrives with the gold and offers 3,000 dinars worth of gold for every soldier if they will be loyal to Commodus.  The army switches sides to back Caesar.  Lucilla travels to see her brother in Rome.  She takes a knife with her.  She tries to stab Commodus in the back, but is stopped.  The man turns out to be Berrus (spelling?).  Berrus tells Lucilla that he cannot kill Commodus for her because Commodus is his own son by their mother.  Commodus overhears the conversation and confront Berrus.  He says that he is lying and kills the man.  Lucilla runs out and pushes her way through the crowd to reach Livinius.  They embrace.  But Lucilla soon finds herself chained to the same post as Livinius.  Commodus then challenges Livinius to a duel, gladiator-style.  Livinius kills Commodus.  The people then declare Livinius the new Caesar.  But Livinius refuses to accept the position.  He will stay with Lucilla and out of the limelight.  Then the rich men of Rome start a bidding war to see who has the most money to buy the title of Caesar.  The narrators says this is the beginning of the Fall of the Roman Empire. 


Pretty good movie.  You can read below in the historical background section that the movie is only loosely based on the lives of Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus and daughter Lucilla.  The narrator says that empires fall from within.  The empire was sapped by fighting so many battles in some many far-flung provinces of the empire.  War has a way of draining the resources of an empire that could have been used to strengthen the home base of the empire.  Then with a run of bad emperors, the rebels are soon at the gates of Rome.  Sophia Loren looks great.  Alec Guiness was great as Marcus Aurelius.  There were a couple of surprises toward the end of the movie.  But the story is too far from the truth for me to get really excited about it.


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


96-193  --  in Rome, it was the era of the Five Good Emperors.  The emperors were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian of Hadrian's Wall fame, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Marcus Aurelius/Lucius Verus, the usurper Avidius Cassius, and the weak Commodus.  

161-169  A.D.  --  Marcus Aurelius with Lucius Verus, co-emperors of Rome.

169  --  Lucius Verus died

169-180  -- Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome.  

178  --  together with his son Commodus, he leads the troops in the wars on the Danube.

Lucilla was related to three Roman emperors.  She was the daughter of Marcus Aurelius, the wife of Lucius Verus, and the sister of Commodus. After her husband's death, her father marries her off to an elderly Senator, Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus of Antioch.  

180  -- Marcus Aurelius dies and is replaced by his son Lucius Aurelius Commodus.  This ends a stretch of 80 years of Roman history in which men gained the throne based on merit rather than birth.  Commodus is a rather weak ruler and prone to cruelty and excessiveness.  He soon surrendered all the lands his father had taken in his wars.

After having her dreams frustrated for many years, his sister Lucilla, together with her cousin, the former consul Marcus Ummidius Quadratus, plot to kill her brother and make her husband the emperor of Rome. Pompeianus' nephew Quintianus tried to kill the emperor with a dagger, but was overpowered and disarmed by the emperor's guard.

182 AD  -- Commodus has Lucilla exiled and executed.

Commodus had to put down other plots against him, encouraged by his taking little interest in the day-to-day running of the government.  He liked to appear in the arena as a gladiator against men with wooden weapons  --  behavior which shocked his fellow Romans. 

192 AD --  after the failure of an attempted poisoning of the emperor, the plotters send in Commodus' wrestling partner, Narcissus, and he strangles the emperor in his bed.

193  -- the beginning of the Severan Dynasty, led first by Pertinax and Didius Julianus, and then by Septimus Severus. 

(More info on Commodus at http://www.roman-empire.net/decline/commodus.html)


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