Ancient Rome and Darth Vader

I've just handed in an essay which I very much enjoyed writing. I'm not sure whether a good mark will follow, but surely enthusiasm counts for something?? The essay looked at the way America has, historically, used the idea of ancient Rome to make political or social comment. For example, it is said that during the time of the American Revolution, the revolutionaries used to write to each other using Roman code names. George Washington was particularly captivated with ancient Rome and there are a number of statues and paintings in which he's depicted in Roman military garb (eg, here).

By the time you get to the 1950s and '60s, Hollywood is starting to churn out the historical epic film (eg, Cleopatra, The Robe, Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Quo Vadis, etc), partly as a way of commenting on Cold War politics - Rome became representative of evil government. Spartacus is the one I found particularly interesting, because it leaves itself open to being read in a couple of very different ways. On the one hand, it can be read as a comment against McCarthyism and the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The movie was based on a novel by Howard Fast, who was imprisoned for communism, and the screenplay was partially written by Dalton Trumbo, one of the famous 'Hollywood Ten' who were blacklisted in 1948. (In fact this was the first film since the blacklist in which he used his own name.) There are many pointed scenes in the film where characters are asked to become informers to Rome or to collaborate with Rome... very much like people who were questioned by the FBI or the HUAC. But then on the other hand the movie can be read as Cold War rhetoric - Rome represents Soviet Russia and/or Nazi Germany (communism and fascism had started to elide in people's minds at about this point) and the slave army represents the moral right who oppose them. I found it all very interesting, because the movie has been appropriated by various groups, and the character of Spartacus has also been appropriated by various groups - not just in America but all over the world, including Nazi Germany. (Obviously their take on the story differed from America's.)

What I found so fascinating about all of this is that, somewhere in there, there was a real Rome. However, the idea of Rome seems to be far more powerful than any bald facts about the Roman empire... it's as though an idea, an image, has developed a life of its own, and it moves people independently of history.

And the Darth Vader comment? Well, I read a great article but didn't have room to include it. The author talked about the way the empire in Star Wars was meant to symbolise Rome - but of course, what it's meant to trigger in the mind is not Rome, but the previous incarnations of Rome in Hollywood; incarnations that represent something entirely different. It's a 'layer upon layer upon layer' thing (for those of you who remember the old Sara Lee commercial) - Darth Vader and his cronies are meant to make us think of Rome and in doing so, because of our old Hollywood association with Rome, we are meant to recall evil and oppressive governments such as Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. So the empire in Star Wars represents fascism through the conduit of Rome. It's complicated but it works because we're used to seeing Rome a particular way and attaching specific meaning to it. It was really fascinating and now I wish I'd included it in my essay! Oh well... too late now; I've handed it in.


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