The traditions and values of Ancient Rome have heavily influenced elements of modern-day popular culture.

Since the 16th century, Shakespeare had been adapting classical Roman history into stories about passion, patriotism and honour. Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra are both set around Ancient Rome, and although there is some historical accuracy, Shakespeare took creative liberties here and there. For example, he added doublets and hats into his play even though the Romans wore togas.

Ever since Shakespeare made adaptations trendy, artists and writers throughout history have been borrowing elements of Ancient Rome for the stage, cinema screen and more. Take a look at the list below for just a few examples: 

The Company in rehearsal for Antony & Cleopatra
A photo of the Rome Company in rehearsals for Antony & Cleopatra
Photo by Helen Maybanks © RSC Browse and license our images

Plebs (2013 - )

Plebs focuses on three young men trying to make a living for themselves in the big city. They do their utmost to find a secure job, climb the social ladder and hit on the girls next door - sounds typical enough. The twist then? It’s all set in Ancient Rome!

Unlikely to be remembered for their standing in society, Marcus, Stylax and their slave Grumio are nothing more than simple plebeians who go about their daily lives. But their boss, Flavia, creates constant obstacles with his masterful manipulation, forcing the three into a number of extraordinary scenarios.

The show has been compared to The Inbetweeners for its stark, crude and comedic format, whilst others have compared it to Blackadder. One thing’s for definite though: Plebs is a modern comedy with an Ancient Roman twist – whatever century you look at, desperate young men are always the same. 

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) 

“The Roman’s took everything we had, and not just from us. From our fathers and from our fathers’s fathers – and what have they given us in return?”

“Uh, the aqueduct?”

“What?”

“The aqueduct.”

"Oh... yeah, they did give us that." 

Life of Brian follows the story of Brian Cohen, a man born on the same day – and just next door – to Jesus Christ. Mistaken for the messiah, Brian finds himself on a journey of utter confusion and religious satire. The film is brimming with jokes about the Roman Empire, including the famous "What have the Romans ever done for us?" scene. The film ends with a parody of the climatic scene from Spartacus (1960) and a bizarre political protest against the Roman Empire.  

Robert Harris: Cicero Trilogy (2006 - 2015)

The Cicero Trilogy is three fictional novels – Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator – about Cicero who is elected by a unanimous vote by the Roman people. His rival is furious at his victory, and swears a bloody oath to destroy Cicero, murder his government and take Rome for his own. But Julius Caesar is also lurking in the shadows, young and greedy for absolute power. 

 

Half a statue head with another statue standing on top of it with burning buildings beneath
The Cicero Trilogy

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962 - )

Originally a novel by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was inspired by the ancient Roman playwright Plautus - who in turn inspired Phil Porter's adaptation of Vice Versa. It was adapted for the stage in 1962, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It won several Tony Awards, including Best Author and Best Musical and was directed by Richard Lester for the big screen in 1966.

The farcical musical deploys a variety of modern and classic puns, slamming doors, and satirical comments on social status. The well-received structure of the play and the unrelenting humour delivered by Frankie Howerd and Zero Mostel laid the basis for the show Up Pompeii!. 

Up Pompeii! (1969 – 1970)

Up Pompeii! was born out of producer Michael Mills' visit to the ruins of Pompeii. Mills had seen A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum starring Frankie Howerd who became an essential part of Up Pompeii! 

Howerd took the the main role in this British comedy series, which ran from 1969 and 1970, with a film in 1971 and two specials airing in 1975 and 1991. Part of the success was down to Howerd’s ability to seamlessly break the fourth wall. He talked directly to the audience using asides, so the other characters couldn't hear what he was saying – he used this technique to make comedic comments about the BBC or complain about the script.

Frankie Howerd, the lead actor in Up Pompeii!
Photo by Allan Warren © distributed under a creative commons license, via Wikimedia Commons Browse and license our images

Ben-Hur (1959)

Originally an adaption of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, Ben-Hur has been made into a film several times. It was first adapted in 1925 as a silent film, and most recently in 2016 – but it’s the 1959 remake of the film which has stood the test of time.

The 1959 version was directed by William Wyler. It starred Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish Prince of Jerusalem who is enslaved by the Romans before being freed by Quintus Arrius, a Roman warship commander.

In the film, Ben-Hur is a seasoned charioteer who goes head-to-head with his childhood friend in a race motivated by vengeance. There are parallels between this historical film and the Ancient Roman tradition of chariot racing; the iconic Equirra festivals often caused huge riots and bloodshed amongst fans and athletes alike.

Caesars Palace, Las Vegas (1966) 

Caesars Palace is a hotel/casino on the west-side of the Las Vegas Strip – it is often considered one of the most luxurious holiday destinations in the world and one of the city’s most iconic landmarks.

Jay Sarno, who developed the hotel which was established in 1966, intended on recreating the opulence of the Roman Empire for his guests. The building contains dozens of statues and columns… there is even a six metre statue of Julius Caesar near the entrance.

Friends: The One in Vegas (Part Two)

Remember in Friends when they go to Vegas? Monica and Chandler spend the evening at the roulette table, and Ross and Rachel end up drawing on each other’s faces. Did you know this was the only episode in the show's 10-season run where the set for Central Perk was taken apart completely? It was replaced by Caesars Palace for a couple of episodes before being turned back into the café.

A statue of Caesar with his arm out and a sign behind which reads Caesars Palace
A statue of Caesar in front of Las Vegas's iconic Caesars Palace
Photo by Ken Lund © distributed under a creative commons license, via Wikimedia Commons Browse and license our images

I, Claudius (1934) 

Originally published in 1934 by Robert Graves, I, Claudius is a 20th century literary classic. Using classical sources, Graves constructed a complex first person narrative about a Roman emperor called Claudius, which encompasses the story of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the Roman Empire from Caesar to Caligula’s assassination (27 BC - 41AD).  The novel won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. 

I, Claudius is best known for the famous BBC Two (1976) television adaptation, starring Derek Jacobi, which ran for 12 episodes. It has also been adapted for BBC Four and theatre (1972). 

Cleopatra (1963) 

Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra was the most expensive film ever made, and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. It was directed by Academy Award winning director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and it does detail Cleopatra's imperial ambitions and her relationship with the Roman Empire with a degree of historical accuracy. 

Julius Caesar (1953) 

Joseph L. Mankiewicz also directed the more successful Julius Caesar for MGM studios in 1953. The film starred a young Marlon Brando, and won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction. Brandon's performance saw him nominated for best actor for the third year running. 

Antony in uniform embraces Cleopatra on the floor
Jonathan Cake and Joaquina Kalukango as Antony and Cleopatra in our 2013 production
Photo by Hugo Glendinning © RSC Browse and license our images

Gladiator (2000) 

On the turn of the century, Gladiator revived Hollywood’s interest in both Rome and Ancient Greece. The epic proportions of the film and the world-class cinematography won it five Academy Awards - it also borrowed a load of costumes from RSC costume hire! 

The film was intended to be based around real history, but director Ridley Scott (like Shakespeare) decided to deviate from historical truths. He believed that previous films and popular culture set in Rome had already moulded people’s public perception of Ancient Rome, so he sacrificed elements of history to maintain narrative continuity.