Monday, August 29, 2016


Marta García Morcillo, Pauline Hanesworth, Óscar Lapeña Marchena (ed.), Imagining Ancient Cities in Film: From Babylon to Cinecittà. Routledge studies in ancient history, 9. New York; London: Routledge, 2015. Pp. vii, 329. ISBN 9780415843973. $140.00.

Reviewed by Seán Easton, Gustavus Adolphus College (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents appears at the end of this review.]

Imagining Ancient Cities in Film is the first edited volume wholly devoted to the cinematic ancient cities of the Mediterranean. This book is not only a scrupulously documented bridge to the substantial body of film that touches on the topic as well as the scholarship devoted to it, it is also a fresh starting line for work in the area. In their introduction, editors Marta García Morcillo and Pauline Hanesworth situate the volume's critical coordinates in the transition from Roland Barthes's cinematic 'balcony of history' to a phenomenological model of viewership. Thus, rather than encounter urban spaces on screen as distanced objects of our static gaze from a balcony, we are invited to experience them as visitors, traveling in and through them. The watching of historical film, according to this model, becomes a mode of our 'being-in-history', or of embodied history; i.e. our physical, sensory experience of a vivid recreation of the past (pp. 5-6).

The balcony perspective's sensory palette is largely confined to the visual, but this is nevertheless an avenue of experience through which a film can communicate an ancient city's aura of authenticity. Its look may feel right to us, whether or not we spot inaccuracies. If, however, we think of our encounter with ancient cinematic urban space as a visitor's bodily experience, we as viewers may grasp its sites/sights through a sensory repertoire that extends beyond the visual. 'Graspable', or haptic (from the Greek verb haptein), visuality may engage those senses that film can represent but not directly address. Accordingly, haptic authenticity emerges in this context when the viewer/visitor feels the presence of the ancient Mediterranean city anywhere across a range of senses, rather than through removed observation alone. Editors' examples include the use of the color sepia to convey a sense of history or the "wailing woman" score in Gladiator that now serves in film after film to create a sense of epic (pp. 5-6). Another important concept for the volume is punctuative set design; i.e. the use of sets to 'punctuate' the story by making a thematic point (p. 7), as in La Battaglia di Maratona (Tourneur and Bava, 1959), where the Parthenon recurs in key shots to establish the hero's connection with the liberty and triumph of democratic Athens (pp. 93-96). The closest I come to a (minor) complaint about this book is that its contributing authors do not necessary make it explicit when they use these concepts. The introduction, however, serves remarkably well to remedy that problem, enabling readers unfamiliar with these ideas to recognize them at work in the chapters.

The volume has a high standard of organizational unity. Each chapter prefaces the close analysis of typical and unique depictions of ancient cities with a survey of all or most of the following: ancient accounts of the city in question, its place in the post-classical static visual arts, and formative literary receptions. Each chapter addresses depictions of a particular ancient city or city type from one of three broad categories: the cultural core of the Greco-Roman world (e.g. Athens, Sparta, Rome, and Pompeii); the perceived chronological, religious, and ethnic frontiers of that world (Jerusalem, Alexandria, and the late antique city); and places beyond those frontiers (e.g. Babylon, Carthage, 'barbarian' cities, as well as fictional cities such as Atlantis).

All this rewards a reading the book from cover to cover. The interconnectedness of city groups, the uniformity of chapter structure, and the relatively consistent interpretive methodology allows common critical themes to emerge across the volume. For example, one learns across three different chapters how the depiction of cities such as Athens, Alexandria, or Jerusalem varies considerably according to the narrative presence of such signature residents as Socrates, Cleopatra, or Jesus. In chapter 2, Michael Seymour initiates another theme that recurs across multiple chapters: the influence of archaeology. Seymour puts the Babylon sequences of D. W. Griffith's Intolerance in the context of Griffith's decision to prioritize recently uncovered archaeological information over far better known Biblical accounts that celebrate Cyrus the Great's conquest of the city, which in turn facilitates the film's extensive engagement with the city. In chapter 3, Leonardo Gregoratti discovers in post-World War II Hollywood films depicting Jesus as an historical figure an inverse relationship between the screen presence of Jesus and a monumental Jerusalem. In the earlier films of this period, Jesus is visually obscured, while Jerusalem's distinctive monumental structures are recognizable and the city is the site of important plot developments. In later films, the pattern is reversed, as Jesus becomes a fully visible screen presence and Jerusalem loses screen prominence and plot significance.

In chapter 4, Francisco Salvador Ventura examines the built communities that appear in films rooted in Homeric narratives, especially their architectural features in both generic and auteurist films. In the former, in Greek cities the signal characteristics are Mycenaean exteriors with Minoan interior decors (owing to a lack of Mycenaean evidence for interiors). Troy's role as a city destined for a specific end dictates its standout urban features: a walled city with sufficiently large public space to accommodate a massive wooden horse. Alternatively, auteurist depictions tend to eschew large scale built sets in favor of thematically resonant natural settings: e.g., Cacoyannis' choice of the Spanish landscape around a medieval fortress for Trojan Women (1971) or the bare ruins of Mycenae for Iphigenia (1977).

Chapters 5 and 6 address Sparta and Athens respectively with attention to Gideon Nisbet's (2006) observation that Greece, unlike Rome, lacks a firm visual identity in the popular imagination. Thomas Blank divides depictions of Sparta into Trojan War films (the majority) and Persian War films. The former may show Sparta as a lived-in space but hews to generic epic movie norms. The latter often deploys set design to signal distinctive Spartan traits (e.g. frugality) at the expense of depicting populated city spaces. This disjunction, notes Blank, is a cinematic confirmation of Thucydides' observation that future observers could likely not interpret Sparta correctly from the evidence of its urban structures. In chapter 6, Pauline Hanesworth engages Nisbet's (2006) argument that Athens' reputation for boring intellectualism has impeded its translation into popular cinema. Hanesworth identifies three responses to the challenges of setting a movie in the Athens of the philosophers: deliberately moving the story elsewhere at the earliest opportunity; focusing on daily life and restricting the city's famous monumentality to punctuative moments; and presenting Athens precisely as the persistence of its classic, timeless intellectual qualities. While acknowledging Athens' smaller filmic footprint vis-à-vis Rome, Hanesworth posits Athens as (1) the template for the ancient city as intellectual space, metaphorically present wherever any city (including ancient Rome) is so depicted and (2), through its monumental architecture, a site evocative not just of Greek identity, but that of a unified West.

In chapter 7, Nacho García divides Alexandria films into those featuring Cleopatra, and those not. The former tend to use interiors with Egyptian decor as sites of plot development, while using Greco-Roman décor and monumental structures for the exteriors. In particular, this disjunction tracks the unresolved cultural status of Alexandria (Greek vs. Egyptian) and gendering of its space (e.g. interiors marked as feminine). Further, Cleopatra's popular association with 'eternal Egypt' rather than the Hellenistic world tends to limit a film's attention to the city's most striking structures; e.g. its lighthouse or library. Non-Cleopatra Alexandria films, such as Alexander (Stone, 2004) and Agora (Amenábar, 2009), however, may feature those structures as metaphors for technological advancement and/or threatened civilization. In chapter 8, Marta García Morcillo divides Carthage on screen into four (mytho-) historical moments: 1) the newly founded city; 2) the aftermath of the First Punic War; 3) the Second Punic War; 4) the Third Punic War and the city's fall. As Rome's Civil Wars have eclipsed its Punic Wars as a subject for cinema, notes García Morcillo, so Alexandria has displaced Carthage as Rome's rival and Eastern Other, and Cleopatra displaced the great female characters of Carthage-lore. This deftly organized study is one of the high points of the volume. It is rich with information on the multiple political contexts of Carthage's filmic reception, the gendering of its urban identity, the deployment of archaeological findings in the mise-en- scène, its associations with the sea, the desert, and the Middle East, both ancient and modern.

In chapter 9, Alberto Prieto Arciniega examines Rome primarily as contested space where opposing ideas square off (e.g. paganism versus Christianity, elite monumentality against popular space, and so forth). Secondarily, he explores the modes through which Rome is embodied for modern audiences; in particular, noteworthy instances of natural scenery serving to characterize the city, and the role of Cinecittà studio sets in embodying Rome for film audiences, as well as for tourists in real time. In chapter 10, Rosario Rovira Guardiola examines the Pompeii tradition in film and television with particular attention to an episode of Dr. Who. She notes that, whereas nineteenth century Pompeii-themed plays and pyrotechnic spectacles embraced the city's archaeological identity, cinematic Pompeii has hewn to paths forged in literature—primarily Bulwer-Lytton's Last Days of Pompeii—for storyline and scene location. A slight variation on the pattern, Dr. Who's 'Fires of Pompeii' gets its plot from the Cambridge Latin Course textbooks. The episode does not show any of Pompeii's famous buildings. It uses Cinecittà Studios, which lends it an ancient Italian identity, rather than a distinctively Pompeiian one. Instead, it establishes the city's identity through the presence of Vesuvius and dialogue that establishes it as a provincial urban space in contrast to Rome as the glamorous capital.

In chapter 11, Filippo Carlà and Andreas Goltz typologize the cinematic late antique city as a function of its theme; for example, a classical city transposed to late antiquity, a city in decline (or ruins); or a site of epochal transition reflecting modern ideas about how life-worlds end or are reborn. In chapter 12, Martin Lindner examines films depicting Gaul, Dacia, Britannia, and Germania in their respective capacities as Rome's barbarian Other. Deploying an abundance of useful detail concerning production context, Lindner locates these films along a spectrum consisting of familiar community projected upon alien wilderness, the extremes of which are a dangerous absence of civilization and a positive closeness to nature (which the film may endorse or parody). In chapter 13, co-editor Óscar Lapeña Marchena examines Atlantis and other fictional Mediterranean cities. Due to the phenomenon of Pierre Benoit's 1919 novel L'Atlantide, which inspired several film adaptations, Atlantis has a number of 20th century cinematic receptions set in North Africa. Apart from these landlocked fantasies of European adventurers happening upon a secret Saharan realm ruled by the descendants of Atlanteans and Cleopatra VII, Atlantis retains an oceanic identity. Typically, however, it also poses some momentous threat, such as environmental disaster or nuclear destruction, making it the site of the hero's triumph. As such, it rarely appears as a complete urban space.

This volume is a valuable contribution that pushes the reader to consider the ancient city on film not only as a social and monumental entity, but also as a dynamic complex of elements fully embedded in the film's various functions (character, plot, major themes, etc.). Its broad international array of film and television productions neither ignores nor particularly privileges Hollywood and makes it likely that even specialists will benefit from its wide-ranging typologies. Having used several of its chapters in an intermediate level undergraduate film and classics course this spring, I can also attest to its capacity to engage talented college students. Whether one is a student, scholar, or dedicated enthusiast, the book as a whole is well worth the read.

Table of Contents

Marta García Morcillo and Pauline Hanesworth, Introduction: Cinematic cityscapes and the ancient past
Michael Seymour, The Babylon of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance
Leonardo Gregoratti, City of God: ancient Jerusalem and the Holy Land in cinema
Francisco Salvador Ventura, From Ithaca to Troy: the Homeric city in cinema and television
Thomas Blank, Utopia: cinematic Sparta as an idea (not a city)
Pauline Hanesworth, Monuments, men and metaphors: recreating ancient Athens in film
Nacho García, City of lights: ancient Alexandria in cinema and modern imagination
Marta García Morcillo, The East in the West: the rise and fall of ancient Carthage in modern imagery and in film
Alberto Prieto Arciniega, "Rome is no longer in Rome": In search of the Eternal City in cinema
Rosario Rovira Guardiola, "It is like Soho, only bigger" : Doctor Who and modern interpretations of Pompeii
Filippo Carlà and Andreas Goltz, The late antique city in movies
Martin Lindner. Barbaricum-civilisation of savages
Oscar Lapeña Marchena, Atlantis and other fictional ancient cities

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