16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach
16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach

16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach

Theodoros - September 12, 2018

Movies set in antiquity have the magical ability to take us back in time, while they usually offer big doses of entertainment and action. Epics and historical dramas follow the fascinating adventures of great heroes and notable figures of the past, while they often present us a side of their personality that we didn’t get a chance to know through history books. On several occasions these films also educate us, but only when Hollywood hasn’t totally disregarded the facts of the original story or historical event that is being portrayed.

However, we shouldn’t be so concerned about historical accuracy when it comes to epics, but rather the telling of a majestic and glorious story. The drama of an epic film is often accompanied by a grandiose soundtrack, regal costumes, and bloody battles. That’s why millions of movie fans around the world – including myself – love this genre with a passion, since we know that the film we are going to watch when we enter a movie theater, has a larger than life story-line that usually takes place thousands of years ago. They don’t call them “epics” for no reason after all.

So, without further ado, today’s list presents sixteen films set in antiquity with an indelible plot that carries out some kind of heroic deed. Despite the undeniable examples of hyperbole in most of them, the following films manage to narrate in a fascinating way all those historical events that school books made them seem dull and boring.

16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach
Rachel Weisz portraying Hypatia in Alejandro Amenábar’s 2009 film titled Agora. IMDB.

1. Agora

The Film: A historical drama set in Roman Egypt about a slave who turns to the rising tide of Christianity in the hope of pursuing freedom while falling in love with his mistress —the famous Hellenistic Neoplatonist philosopher and mathematics professor Hypatia of Alexandria—Agora is one of the most underrated films of recent years. Alejandro Amenábar’s masterpiece is a breathtaking excursion into religious fascism and misogynistic tyranny presented beautifully by Rachel Weisz, who probably gives one of the best film performances in years as a scientist who is light-years ahead of her generation: Hypatia.

The Historical Events: Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, the city of Alexandria quickly grew into a center of Greek culture and learning for the ancient world. At its heart was the museum, a type of university, whose collection of more than a half-million scrolls was housed in the library of Alexandria. The city attracted many brilliant philosophers and scientists, with one of them being Hypatia, a decorated mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and the last great thinker of ancient Alexandria. She was among the most influential personalities in Alexandria during a turbulent time, when the city was plagued by fighting among Christians, Jews and pagans, while the power balance in the Roman Empire was shifting from the Greeks (pagans) to Christians.

Hypatia was widely acclaimed and achieved recognition in several fields of mathematics including algebra, geometry, and astronomy. Her public lectures were popular, and her technical contributions to geometry, astronomy, number theory, and philosophy made Hypatia a highly regarded teacher and scholar. It is known that she wrote commentaries on the Conics of Apollonius of Perga, an early work of higher geometry, and the Arithmetic of Diophantus, treating what today would be called number theory. In astronomy, she published a table of some sort—opinions differ on its precise nature—and collaborated in the design of an astrolabe.

Despite Hypatia being the first woman to make a substantial contribution to the development of astronomy and mathematics, she was murdered by an angry mob of Christians, provoked by her outspokenness and jealous of her brilliance.

16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach
Scene from Prience of Persia film, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. IMDB.

2. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

The Film: Set in the mystical land of ancient Persia, a rogue prince and mysterious princess race against dark forces to safeguard an ancient dagger capable of releasing the Sands of Time—a gift from the gods that can reverse time and allow its possessor to rule the world. I remember looking forward to this film because of the hype (back in 2010 when it was released), but at the same time I was afraid I was going to be disappointed. However, as the film unfolded, I totally enjoyed the adventure from beginning to end, and Jake Gyllenhaal is amazing as Prince Dastan.

As a movie buff and avid gamer myself, I highly recommend this film for a good old-fashioned action-adventure set in ancient times. The film has the same title as the video game Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time developed and published by Ubisoft, and is primarily based on it. The parkour sequences are of the highest quality and very well edited and filmed. The sets and visual effects are excellent. Best of all, the story is intelligent and well-constructed. Watch it if you haven’t already.

The Historical Events: Even though some of you will rush to claim that this film isn’t based on any historical event or figures, but instead its prime source of inspiration is a video game, truth is that you’re only partly right. Despite its fictional plot, this film depicts a very accurate image of life, culture and architecture of Islamic Persia. Islamic architecture with complex use of geometric shapes and domes are shown, while all the cities in the film appear to have minarets, which is historically accurate.

However, the Allied Kingdom of Alamut – shown in the movie – wasn’t established until 9th century when it was built by the Justanid ruler, Wahsudan b. Marzuban, a follower of zaydi Islam, around 865 AD. It was seized by Hassan-i Sabbah, who was the leader of the NizārÄ« Ismā‘īlÄ«tes and the founder of the secret order known as Assassins.

16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach
Colin Farrell portraying Alexander in Oliver Stone’s homonym film of 2004. CineCola.

3. Alexander

The Film: It’s not an exaggeration to say that this might be Oliver Stone’s biggest failure ever. Why? First off, and to be perfectly fair, Stone consulted Robin Lane Fox, Oxford historian and the premier Alexander expert, before making this film. And it shows. The film certainly ranks as one of the most historically accurate out there, and any viewer who’s into Greek drama and history will agree. Colin Farrell gives a strong performance as always and so does most of the cast. So what’s the problem then?

The problem is that Stone spends almost three hours focusing almost exclusively on Alexander’s sexuality (presenting him as a bisexual who loved men more than women), when he had the chance to make a compelling film about the greatest Greek king and arguably the greatest military leader ever, who conquered much of the known world by the time he was thirty-three. There’s nothing wrong with Alexander being bisexual, but when you make a movie about him that can go in so many directions but focus almost solely on his sexuality then you’ve failed miserably.

The Historical Events: Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was a king of Macedon, a state in northern ancient Greece. Born in Pella, Greece in 356 BC, Alexander was tutored by Aristotle until the age of 16. By the age of thirty, he had created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from the Ionian Sea to the Himalayas. He was undefeated in battle, and is considered one of history’s most successful commanders. Alexander succeeded his father, Philip II of Macedon, to the throne in 336 BC after Philip was assassinated.

Upon Philip’s death, Alexander inherited a strong kingdom and an experienced army. He was awarded the generalship of Greece and used this authority to launch his father’s military expansion plans. In 334 BC he invaded Persian-ruled Asia Minor and began a series of campaigns that lasted ten years. Alexander broke the power of Persia in a series of decisive battles, most notably the battles of Issus and Gaugamela. He subsequently overthrew the Persian King Darius III and conquered the entirety of the Persian Empire. At that point his empire stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River.

Alexander’s legacy includes the cultural dispersal his conquests engendered. He founded more than twenty cities that bore his name, including Alexandria in Egypt. Alexander’s settlement of Greek colonists and the resulting spread of Greek culture in the east resulted in a new Hellenistic civilization, aspects of which were still evident in the traditions of the Byzantine Empire in the mid-15th century. Ultimately, Alexander became the measure against which military leaders compared themselves and military academies throughout the world still teach his tactics.

16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach
Scene from film Hero starring Jet Li. South China Morning Post.

4. Hero

The Film: This is Jet Li’s best film and one of the most beautiful, satisfying movies about ancient China you will ever see. While watching this film you will be surprised by the use of colors, the cinematography, and the clean, precious effects. The scenery is lush and intense with vivid color changes and various terrains, pure eye candy. The lead actors are easy to watch and enthralling, especially as the plot twists develop. It is truly fun to love them one moment, hate them the next, and then find yourself identifying with them.

A supporting performance by Ziyi Zhang as Moon, servant to Broken Sword, is also well executed as her role throughout the film changes in strength along with the main characters. The fight scenes move fluently and are thrilling to watch. Anyone who is a fan of this type of martial-arts film should enjoy it.

The Historical Events: The film is based on the story of Jing Ke (portrayed by Jet Li), a retainer of Crown Prince Dan of the Yan state, widely known for his failed assassination attempt of King Zheng of the Qin state, who later became Qin Shi Huang. Qin Shi Huang went on becoming China’s first emperor at 38 after the Qin dynasty conquered all of the other Warring States and unified all of China in 221 BC. Rather than maintain the title of “king” borne by the previous Shang and Zhou rulers, he ruled as the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty from 220 to 210 BC.

During his reign, his army vastly expanded the size of the Chinese state, while his impressive public constructions included the unification of diverse state walls into a single Great Wall of China, an enormous new national road system, and of course the gigantic mausoleum guarded by the legendary Terracotta Army.

 

16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach
King Leonidas portrayed by Gerard Butler in 300. Wiki – Fandom.

5. 300

The Film: Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, 300 is a ferocious retelling of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae in which King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and his 300 Spartans fought to the death against Xerxes and his massive Persian army. Facing insurmountable odds, their valor and sacrifice inspire all of Greece to unite against their Persian enemy, drawing a line in the sand for democracy. The film brings Miller’s acclaimed graphic novel to life by combining live action with virtual backgrounds that capture his distinct vision of this historic battle.

The Historical Events: Despite the awesomeness that is the 300 film, the epic battles, the amazing directing, the incredible cinematography by Zack Snyder, and all the impressive special effects, truth is that there are some noticeable historical inaccuracies in this cinematic masterpiece. However, there’s no doubt that the film is loosely based on one of the world’s greatest battles ever: the Battle of Thermopylae. The battle took place back in 480 BC, where an alliance of Greek city-states fought the invading Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks delayed the enemy in what may be the most epic last stand in history.

The Greek army, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, was about ten thousand strong when the Persians arrived. Xerxes was furious by the fact that the Greeks would take a stand against his immense army (ranging between about 100,000 and 250,000). After warning them to surrender, Xerxes launched a vicious attack. At first, the Greek forces retreated drawing the Persian army into the narrow pass. Then they turned and waged a furious battle against the limited number of Persian who had entered the pass, thoroughly routing them. Time and again the attacking Persians, including the elite immortals, were unable to get through.

Two days after fierce body to body battles with the Persians getting destroyed by the much smaller Greek army, their luck was about to change. A local traitor named Ephialtes informed Xerxes about a small path above the pass of Thermopylae that led behind the Greek lines. This way the Persian army passed through the mountains at night and trapped the Greeks. King Leonidas, aware that his force was being outflanked, dismissed the bulk of the Greek army and remained to guard their retreat with 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians, fighting to the death.

16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. Hazlitt.

6. Cleopatra

The Film: Cleopatra achieved notoriety during filming for its massive cost overruns and production troubles, which included a change of director and cast members, a change of filming locale, sets that had to be constructed twice, lack of a firm shooting script, and personal scandal surrounding its costars. It was the most expensive film ever made to that date and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. It received mixed reviews, although critics and audiences alike generally praised Liz Taylor as Cleopatra and Richard Burton as Mark Antony.

It was the highest-grossing film of 1963, earning $57.7 million (equivalent to $450 million in 2018), yet took a loss due to its $44 million in production and marketing costs (equivalent to $340 million in 2018), making it the only highest-grossing film of the year yet to run at a loss.

The Historical Events: Cleopatra, arguably the most famous Egyptian woman of all time, wasn’t even Egyptian in blood. She was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family of Greek origin that ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great’s death during the Hellenistic period. The Ptolemies, throughout their dynasty, spoke Greek and refused to speak Egyptian, which is the reason that Greek, as well as Egyptian languages, were used on official court documents such as the Rosetta Stone. By contrast, Cleopatra did learn to speak Egyptian and represented herself as the reincarnation of an Egyptian goddess, Isis.

Her romance with Mark Anthony is probably the most famous love story in the world behind that of Romeo and Juliet and without a doubt the greatest historically recorded love of all time. The two fell in love at first sight and their love was so great to the point it became a threat to the Roman Empire, which kept losing power and control to Egypt because of the decisions a blinded-by-love Mark Antony made. Despite all the obstacles and warnings, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra got married and Anthony ended up fighting his own people.

According to one version of their story, it is believed that while fighting a battle against the Romans, Antony was informed falsely that Cleopatra was dead and, devastated by this news, took his own life with his sword. When Cleopatra learned of Antony’s death, she took her own life, putting an end to one of the greatest loves that ended in tragedy.

16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach
Mel Gibson Took Lessons From Sean Connery For His Role In Braveheart. LADbible.

7. Braveheart

The Film: Historical flaws aside, Braveheart is a rousing spectacle. A film that is directed by a man who doesn’t have such a good reputation at the moment “thanks” to his highly controversial statements, a film that has a heavy handed approach at times, Braveheart – despite its obvious historical inaccuracies – is still a masterpiece. Mel Gibson won the Oscar for Best Director and Best Picture for this film, both very well deserved as he knew how to film realistically the action scenes, while his brilliant portrayal of Wallace was truly memorable. Braveheart, for all its epic battle scenes, is a political picture about the desire of suppressed people for “something better,” as Wallace perfectly describes it in the film.

The Historical Events: The story of the film was inspired by Blind Harry’s epic poem The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace. William Wallace was a late 13th-century Scottish warrior who led the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England. He is a compelling historical character because it was never his intention to become a freedom fighter. He left his homeland as a small boy amidst family tragedy and spent many years abroad. He returned to Scotland a new man with simple (and normal) desires: to live free in peace and raise his family.

After King Edward I imprisoned the Scottish king John de Balliol, Wallace declared himself ruler of Scotland. He led around 30 men to burn the royal town of Lanark where he killed the English sheriff, and then raised an army to attack the English garrisons. In the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, Wallace captured Stirling Castle and nearly freed Scotland of occupying forces. In an attempt to avenge their defeat at Stirling Bridge, Edward I invaded Scotland in 1298. Wallace led the Scottish forces that consisted of 2,500 mounted knights and 12,500 infantry.

Vulnerable to England’s longbowmen, Wallace’s forces were soon scattered by the charging English cavalry and many of them fled into the neighboring woods. Wallace escaped, although he lost many supporters. After English rule was re-established, Wallace waged a lengthy guerrilla campaign. He was declared a traitor to the English king, even though he had never sworn allegiance. He was eventually hunted down, captured and eventually beheaded after he was tortured for days. He was succeeded by Robert de Bruce, who in 1306 raised the rebellion that won Scotland’s independence.

 

16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach
Battle scene from The Eagle. SBS,

8. The Eagle

The Film: As a hardcore movie buff, I was a little hesitant to watch this movie because the lead actor was Channing Tatum, who in my opinion hasn’t done a lot of good films. However, in this movie he was brilliant and really connected with his character Marcus Aquila, a young Roman soldier who has to find and retrieve the Roman Eagle that his father lost north of Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland. The absence of special effects in the film make the fights and battles more realistic and exciting in the watcher’s eye.

Nonetheless, it’s really had not to notice a very strange thing about this movie: it portrays early Britons with painted faces, teeth necklaces and skins for clothing rather like primitive tropical island savages. As we all know Britain is a relatively modern civilized nation but would the ancient Brits really look like that in year round freezing Scotland? Most likely not! Other than this, there was nothing much wrong historically with this movie.

The Historical Events: According to the University of Reading, the original eagle statue was found in 1866 at the Roman town of Calleva near Silchester in Hampshire, which the University’s Archaeology Department have been excavating and researching since 1997. This was also the location for the film’s official press day. Arachaeolgists initially believed that the Eagle was part of a statue that stood in the city’s 2nd Century town hall, which burnt down in the third century. However, new research suggests that the bronze bird stood in the royal palace of the native British King that ruled that part of Britain on behalf of the Roman Empire, long before the Romano-British town hall was built.

It is believed that at some point the palace’s eagle suffered substantial damage and the town’s ruler had to repair it. Once fixed, it probably continued to reside in the royal palace until the building was destroyed, either by accidental fire or during renewed unrest, probably sometime in the 80s AD. During that mysterious destruction, the eagle was buried under the rubble of the palace, which ended up as part of the “hardcore” platform on which Silchester’s Roman town hall was built.

16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach
Scene from John Woo’s Red Cliff. Alchetron.

9. Red Cliff

The Film: As a whole this movie is entertaining enough to get you through its run-time without feeling too run down. However, for a movie that lasts about five hours, it seems like it can’t decide what it wants to be. As such it either needs to be longer (ouch!) to develop its story better, or shorter to cut out a lot of fluff. The fight sequences are pure spectacle though, with old school wire work combined with technological wizardry to showcase some large scale battle sequences at a macro level, or to highlight the immense naval numbers that Cao Cao brings to battle.

Formations and strategies take center stage in a first major confrontation on land, where one gets to see John Woo’s interpretation of Zhuge Liang’s “ba-gua” (8 stratagems) strategy, made more entertaining through the continuation of what we have already seen in each general’s fighting ability, each given a unique style befitting the characters in folklore, such as Guan Yu and his Guan Dao (Green Dragon Crescent Blade) and Zhao Yun (Hu Jun) and his spear. I can’t help it but mention, however, that the film also features some annoying cartoon music, which seemed to be oddly misplaced in intense combat scenes. Why Mr. Woo?

The Historical Events: The film is based on the Battle of Red Cliffs (AD 208-209) and the events at the end of the Han dynasty and immediately prior to the Three Kingdoms period in imperial China. Also known as the Battle of Chibi, this was a defining battle fought in the winter of 208/9 between the united forces of the southern warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan and the vastly superior (numerically) forces of the northern warlord Cao Cao. Liu Bei and Sun Quan successfully ruined Cao Cao’s attempt to invade the land south of the Yangtze River and reunite the territory of the Eastern Han dynasty.

The allied victory at Red Cliffs ensured the survival of Liu Bei and Sun Quan, gave them control of the Yangtze and provided a line of defense that was the basis for the later creation of the two southern states of Shu Han and Eastern Wu. The battle has been called the largest naval battle in history in terms of numbers involved. Descriptions of the battle vary greatly, and the location of the battle is also challenged by many historians. Although its precise location remains unknown, most scolars agree that it was on the south bank of the Yangtze River.

16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach
Russell Crowe in his Oscar winning performance of Maximus. Variety.

10. Gladiator

The Film: Gladiator tells the story of a successful man who loses everything thanks to an evil man, and then has to fight his way back to seek revenge and obtain his freedom. This movie doesn’t go to excess with the violence as some of the more recent epic films to impress the crowds. The acting is excellent, beginning with Russell Crowe who won the Oscar for Best Actor at the 73rd Academy Awards for his amazing performance. Joaquin Phoenix is also exceptional as the evil Commodus.

What we can’t forgive about this film, however, is how its legendary director (Ridley Scott) picked a very childish finale (even though very dramatic from a cinematic point of view) in which the Caesar of Rome fights (and dies) in the arena with a common slave. Although Commodus engaged in show combat in the Colosseum, he was not killed in the arena; he was strangled in his bath by the wrestler Narcissus. Commodus reigned for over twelve years, unlike the shorter period portrayed in the film.

The Historical Events: Although the character of Maximus is completely fictional, Commodus and Marcus Aurelius are not. The story is loosely based on real events that occurred within the Roman Empire in the latter half of the 2nd century AD. As Ridley Scott wanted to portray Roman culture more accurately than in any previous film, he hired several historians as advisors. Nevertheless, some deviations from historical fact were made to increase interest, maintain narrative continuity, and for practical or safety reasons. For example, costumes in the film are not historically accurate, while some of the soldiers wear fantasy helmets.

For all its historical flaws, the movie depicts accurately a lot of things as well though. Marcus Aurelius was indeed Commodus’s father, even though he wasn’t murdered by him like the film shows but his death was actually caused by plague. In the movie, Marcus Aurelius was mentioned to be a philosopher and he actually was. He was one of the most important Stoic philosopher and wrote mostly in Greek. Furthermore, Commodus’s reign was marked by absolutism as showed in the film since many historiographers describe him as “the Roman Hercules.

The admiration and love of Commodus for gladiators was real, with the only difference being that when he decided to challenge them in the arena, the fight was always staged so that he could always be victorious. More importantly, the recreation of the Colosseum and the games of gladiators, which compose some of the best scenes of the movie, are faithfully close to the real thing according to the many remaining historical sources.

16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach
Gong Li as Empress Phoenix. Info Film.

11. Curse of the Golden Flower

The Film: Despite the millions of chrysanthemum flowers and thousands background actors (as soldiers) used for this production, there’s a couple of things that will capture your attention even more in this film. On the one hand, Gong Li and her titillating assets overshadow pretty much everything else in the movie. While it may not be historically accurate for 10th Century Tang Dynasty palace women to dress so scantily, director Zhang Yimou obviously wants to make a stylistic statement right from the opening scene. And he’s doing a pretty damn good job if you ask me.

On the other hand, his play with colors is one of a kind in this film. Yimou manages to present magnificently a kaleidoscope in its grandeur palace setting and elaborate costumes. The final fighting scene lead by Prince Jai, the prince with golden armored warriors trampling over chrysanthemum, is nothing short of impressive. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that very few movies in history have achieved the level of sheer visual beauty as this one with its interior shots of Chinese palace walls and columns illuminated by glowing hues of gold, emerald, and ruby.

Also very few films have also have managed to weave the threads of so many tangled tortured relationships into such a fascinating masterpiece of tragedy. Curse of the Golden Flower is the perfect mix of soap drama and a period epic in a successful attempt to impress with colors, opulence and sheer indulgence.

The Historical Events: From a historical point of view, things are a little complicated in this film. The English language version declares that the events take place during the reign of the “Tang dynasty” in AD 928. However, the Chinese version doesn’t specify a time period at all, even though the film’s published screenplay implies that it’s set during Later Shu of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. Strangely, neither the Tang dynasty (618-907) nor Later Shu (934-965) existed in the year 928, although another state named “Tang” — known as Later Tang in history — was.

Further, the Mandarin Chinese title of the movie is taken from the last line of the Qi Dynasty poem written by the rebel leader Emperor Huang Chao who was also the Emperor of the Qi Dynasty that was at war against the Later Tang Dynasty. Huang Chao had nothing to do with 928 as well, since the man was born in 835 and was killed by his nephew Lin Yan in 884. Huang was a salt smuggler before joining Wang Xianzhi’s rebellion in the mid-870s. After splitting with Wang, his troops turned south and invaded Guangzhou.

In 881, his forces captured the capital Chang’an, forcing Emperor Xizong of Tang to flee. Huang proclaimed himself the Qi emperor, but he was defeated by the Tang army led by the Shatuo chieftain Li Keyong in 883 and forced to desert Chang’an.

16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach
Movie scene from Centurion. Alchetron.

12. Centurion

The Film: If you’re a fan of the culture and history of early Britain, you will definitely enjoy this film. The battles are very realistic and it wouldn’t be much of an overstatement if one claimed that this may be the closest to how a hand-to-hand fight was in ancient times. The characters are simply drawn, and develop through their actions rather than words, especially in the case of Olga Kurylenko’s Etain. There is good and bad on both sides of the conflict, which is true to every war in human history. Ultimately, it offers a quite believable scenario to explain the mysterious historical disappearance of the 9th Legion in Hibernia.

The Historical Events: What may be one of the most notable riddles in history is the disappearance of the Ninth Legion, lost in the fogs of Britain. The Ninth Legion started its journey to the north to quell a rebellion, pitting well-trained and well-equipped soldiers against British irregulars. The view that these persecuted warriors managed to wipe out the legion in a successful ambush survives in the collective unconscious of both the English and the Scots as a battle similar to the one between David and Goliath.

Of the five thousand legionnaires, not a trace of one has ever been found, nor has any spear or shield, or anything else turned up to indicate that there had been a battle. So, what happened to the Ninth Legion? This is a question that keeps tantalizing historians for almost 2,000 years. It is a mystery that has baffled and inspired writers and yet nobody has ever come up with a comprehensive answer to the simple question: “What happened to Legio IX Hispana, the greatest of all Roman Legions?”

16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach
Troy’s main protagonists Achilles (Brad Pitt) and Hector (Eric Bana). Comic Vine.

13. Troy

The Film: As told by Homer in The Iliad, in 1193 BC Prince Paris of Troy kidnapped Helen from her husband Menelaus, the king of Sparta. In retaliation, Menelaus sends Achilles and the entire Greek armada to besiege Troy, and the war lasts for a decade. Troy could have been a truly great film, if it wasn’t for some disrespectful and unnecessary alterations made to this literary masterpiece that has survived for thousands of years. Unfortunately, Hollywood modified the story in great ignorance and arrogance. Not a bad film, but it could have been much better.

The Historical Events: The historicity of the Trojan War is still subject to debate. Most classical Greek scholars thought that the war was a historical event, but many believed that the Homeric poems had exaggerated the events to suit the demands of poetry. Thucydides, who is known for being critical, considers it a historical event but doubts that 1,186 ships were sent to Troy. Euripides started changing Greek myths at will, including those of the Trojan War. Near year AD 100, Dio Chrysostom argued that while the war was historical, it ended with the Trojans winning, and the Greeks attempted to hide that fact.

In 1870, however, Western historians agreed that the Trojan War never happened and Troy was a fictional place, existing only in Homer’s mind. Then Heinrich Schliemann popularized his excavations at Hisarlik, which he and others believed to be Troy, and of the Mycenaean cities of Greece. Nowadays, many scholars agree that the Trojan War is based on a historical core of a Greek expedition against the city of Troy, but not many will agree that the Homeric poems narrated the historical facts of the war accurately.

One way or another, next time you claim that Odysseus, Achilles and Patroclus were just fictional figures that never existed, just think what our descendants in a thousand or two thousand years from now will be thinking when they will be reading a sports newspaper that describes Michael Phelps as half human and half shark aqua-man.

 

16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach
Anthony Quinn as Barabbas in the homonym film of 1961. Artwork Production.

14. Barabbas

The Film: This is a high-quality, reverent film that doesn’t fall into your typical clichés that you usually see in religious films and shows great respect to the subject-matter and the audience. The acting is without weakness, Anthony Quinn as Barabbas and Richard Fleischer direction is punchy without being vulgar, serious but not ponderous. Mario Nascimbene’s musical score rises above his usual brutality to real eloquence. What’s really interesting to mention here is that the sun went on turning on a full eclipse during the filming of the movie and was captured by the 70 cameras used for the crucifixion scene.

Sign of God? Hmmm, not sure about that, but Barabbas is definitely one of the best religious films out there that it’s definitely worth the viewing of Christians and non-Christians alike.

The Historical Events: Barabbas was a robber in case you’re pro-Roman, or a revolutionary hero (Zealot) if you are a pro- Jew. It really depends how you see things. Like Jesus, Barabbas was also involved in an insurrection in Jerusalem and was caught and arrested as a rebel on charges of sedition. He had hundreds of followers who were likely to riot in support of him. The Zealots were patriots for Judaea. They desired to rid their country of the Romans and the corrupt temple cultus whose high priests were pro-Roman collaborators and mere puppets of state.

He’s mainly mentioned in the New Testament of the Bible, in which he’s held by the Roman governor at the same time as Jesus, and whom Pontius Pilate freed at the Passover feast in Jerusalem, while keeping Jesus as a prisoner.

 

16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach
Legendary actor Marlon Brando as Julius Caesar. It’s Just Awesome.

15. Julius Caesar

The Film: This excellent adaptation of the Shakespeare play concerns on greedy, fighting power and epic-historical treatment in ancient Roman Empire. It displays outstanding performances from James Mason as Brutus, Louis Calhern as memorable Caesar, Deborah Kerr as Brutus’s wife, and Greer Garson as Calpurnia, Caesar’s first wife. Of course, an electrifying Marlon Brando steals the show by making a terrific acting as Mark Antony using Stanislawski method and extraordinary soliloquy over Caesar’s body. This production stands as a shining example of how a big Hollywood studio can make a great Shakespeare film, cast it intelligently, and still end up with box-office names.

The question is: Why they don’t make such films these days?

The Historical Events: The film is inspired by The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, a history play and tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1599. On March 15, 44 BC, the historic Caesar was attacked by a group of senators, including Brutus, who was Caesar’s friend and protégé. Caesar initially resisted his attackers, but when he saw Brutus, he supposedly said the famous Latin phrase “Et tu, Brute?” meaning “Even you, Brutus?” at the moment of his assassination. However, the historicity of Caesar’s last words is heavily debated to this day.

The Roman historian Suetonius, nearly 150 years after the assassination, claimed that Caesar didn’t say anything as he was dying, but it was others reporting that Caesar’s last words were the Greek phrase “και συ, τέκνον”, which means “You too, child?” Ultimately, famed Greek historian Plutarch also reports that a betrayed and disappointed Caesar said nothing, but merely pulled his toga over his head when he saw Brutus among the conspirators.

16 Powerful Movies that Have a History Lesson to Teach
Kirk Douglas as Spartacus in Stanley Kubrick’s homonym 1961 film. YouTube.

16. Spartacus

The Film: This film narrates the dramatic tale – mixed with Hollywood drama – of a slave who leads a revolt against Rome, building a revolutionary movement from almost nothing to an army of thousands, only to be beaten and literally crucified in the end. The prelude to the final battle scene is awesome looking when you see all the soldiers lined up. I personally liked that they didn’t overdo the action scenes, which they could easily have done by employing a cast of thousands.

Cutting those scenes down enabled them to cut the film’s length, which is still over three hours. Last but not least, the movie might not be a classic ala 300 or Braveheart, but Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, the leader of the revolt, is simply epic.

The Historical Events: Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator who, along with other notable “gladiators” such as Crixus, Gannicus and Oenomaus, was one of the escaped slave leaders in the Third Servile War, a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of information about Spartacus, his background and his life beyond the events of the war, while many remaining historical sources appear to contradict each other. However, all sources agree that he was a former gladiator and an accomplished military leader.

There’s a debate about his ethnic background as some historians claim that he was of Greek origin, while others refer to him as a Thracian in a possible reference to the Maedi tribe (modern-day Bulgaria). Decorated historian Plutarch describes Spartacus as “a Greek of Nomadic stock,” while Appian of Alexandria, a Greek historian with Roman citizenship claimed that Spartacus was a Thracian by birth, who had once served as a soldier with the Romans, but had since been a prisoner and sold for a gladiator.

Regardless his ethnic background, Spartacus’ struggle for freedom has been glorified and admired throughout the centuries and it is often seen as the ultimate fight of oppressed people against tyranny. Spartacus has also been influential to several contemporary revolutionaries , most notably the Spartacist League of Weimar Germany, as well as the far-left Spartacist groups of the 1970s in Europe and America. Che Guevara in particular was a well-known admirer of Spartacus.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Hypatia, scientist of Alexandria, 8th March 415 A.D. Lampi di stampa.

The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture: Mosul to Zirid.

“Alexander the Great (356-323 BC)”. UK: BBC.

Clements, Jonathan (2006). The First Emperor of China.

Bradford, Ernle (2004). Thermopylae: The Battle for the West. Da Capo Press.

Watkins, Thayer. “The Timeline of the Life of Cleopatra. San Jose State University.

“William Wallace (c. 1270-1305)”. Bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 4 April 2010.

Roman eagle found by archaeologists in the City of London. The Guardian 2011.

“The Largest Naval Sea Battles in Military History”. norwich.edu. Retrieved 29 April 2017.

Like Father Not Like Son: Marcus Aurelius & Commodus.

Victor Cunrui Xiong (2009). Historical Dictionary of Medieval China. Rowman & Littlefield.

B. Campbell, “The Fate of the Ninth: the Curious Disappearance of one of Rome’s legions” 2008.

Troy: From Homer’s Iliad to Hollywood Epic, edited by Martin M. Winkler. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2006

“The Mystery of Barabbas”. Askwhy.co.uk

Wyke, Maria (2006). Julius Caesar in western culture. Oxford, England: Blackwell.

Nic Fields (2009). Spartacus and the Slave War 73-71 BC: A Gladiator Rebels Against Rome.

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