The Roman Emperors were a nasty lot. No one knew this better than Hollywood, who loved to put on show the excesses of these despots.
5. Caligula- Malcolm MacDowel in Caligula
The film originally had fairly high-brow intentions. The screenplay of this film was written by Gore Vidal. Yet at some point Bob Guccione, founder of Penthouse, got involved and decided to turn the film into a vehicle for a high end pornogaphy. Depending on what version you see, scenes of Malcolm MacDowell and Helen Mirren are interspersed with full on sex scenes or Carry On style cheekiness. McDowell revels in his character’s foibles.
4. Caligula – Jay Robinson in The Robe
The bloodless Caligula in The Robe is very different to MacDowell’s later version. He has the cold cruelty and sneering attitude of the jaded aesthete. His displeasure leads to the banishment of the playboy Marcellus (played by Richard Burton) and precipitates the plots in this Jesus period, sword and sandals swashbuckler. He also becomes the first imperial persecutor of the Christians, although tradition normally identifies Nero in this position.
3. Commodus – Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator
The example of the evil emperor most people would think of today. Joaquin brought to his portrayal of Commodos, a cold and sexual psychopathy. There are many inaccuracies and anachronisms in the film. One advisor quit and another asked for their contribution to be anonymous. The most glaring omission? The emperor Commodus was a devotee of God Anubis and yet this crucial part of the emperor’s character is never shown in the film.
2. Nero – Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis?
Peter Ustonov’s performance in Quo Vadis is the redeeming feature of a good but otherwise slow paced film. Nero is a prancing performance, out of touch both with his limited talents and other people’s opinions of him. Wildly confident and insecure, he channels Hitlerian visions of a new architecture and persecution of a minority group. As Donald Tusk pointed out in October 2019, there is something of Nero in Boris Johnson’s actions.
1. Caligula – John hurt in I, Claudius
John Hurt’s playfully evil and camp Commodus is the greatest portrayal of evil in film history ever. In a life less varied, it would have been a career defining role. Over the top and camp, in a lesser actor’s hands this role would fallen flat. Hurt initially turned down the role and only decided to take it at a pre-shoot video. The source for Robert Graves’ novel was the Roman historian Suetonius. Suetonius wrote his bitchy book during the reign of Trajan and Hadrian (two of the “good emperors”). He loves to describe the gratuitous details: the foibles, depravities and wrongs. Writing about earlier times, meant that he was defending the current emperors. Caligula does it all: incest, murder, pimping and making horses senators.