Sword and sandal epics have long been a staple of the movie business. Rome, with its air of decadence and brutality, is a subject of endless fascination for filmmakers, playing fast and loose with historical truth. Among the most fascinating figures in any Roman epic is the emperor, usually but not always depicted as an incarnation of supreme power and total licence, often with endearing personal quirks. Here is a list of five of the most memorable of the emperors from cinematic history and the actors who portrayed them—in reverse order.

(5) Derek Jacobi as the Emperor Claudius in "I, Claudius" (1976)

"I, Claudius" is a BBC TV series rather than a movie, but one with high production values that allows it to be ranked alongside big budget movies. It is remarkable for several excellent performances of actors playing Roman emperors, including John Hurt's haunting depiction of the insane Emperor Caligula, and several lesser performancesBrian Blessed as the Emperor Augustus and Christopher Biggins as Nero. 

Derek Jacobi's performance as the stuttering uncle of the maniacal Caligula and finally his successor is totally memorable, showing that being emperor is not all it's cracked up to be. Almost a lame duck emperor from the start, his wife Messalina shamelessly cucks him, and the pressures of supporting the Julian dynasty turns him into a shell of a man, muttering his unforgettable catchphrase "Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out"—a reference to Aesop's fable about "Old King Log."

(4) Alec Guinness as Emperor Marcus Aurelius in "The Fall of the Roman Empire" (1964)

In several of his film roles Guinness plays stoical figures with a veneer of world weariness, from Charles I in "Cromwell" (1970) to Obi Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars" (1977). So casting him as the famous Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius in "The Fall of the Roman Empire" was not a surprising choice. Guinness plays the role with somber dignity, projecting an idea of the Roman Empire as a combination of power with responsibility, which contrasts with its subsequent descent into irresponsible thrill-seeking under the reign of his son and successor Commodus, expertly played by Christopher Plummer. 

(3) Joaquin Phoenix as Emperor Commodus in "Gladiator" (2000)

Although Plummer's Commodus in "Fall of the Roman Empire" was excellent, Phoenix's portrayal was better yet. In a stand-out performance, Phoenix mixes elements of "chad" brutalism with an underlying psychology of emotional insecurity that involves "daddy issues" and incestuous hankerings after his own sister. This charismatic and emotionally compelling villain stole the show from Russell Crowe's rather dry and functional hero, Maximus. Despite this, Crowe surprisingly won the Best Actor Oscar for his role, while Phoenix was only rewarded with a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. This is the kind of slight that the real Commodus would have expiated in blood in the dust of the Colosseum.

(2) Jay Robinson as Emperor Caligula in "The Robe" (1953) and "Demetrius the Gladiator" (1954)

While John Hurt's Caligula in "I Claudius" (1976) is complex and nuanced, Jay Robinson performance as the most megalomaniac of the Roman Emperors is immediate and unforgettable. Using a high-pitched hectoring, sneering voice, made sinister by camp inflections, Robinson keeps his Caligula always on the verge of hysteria in an electrifying performance. The two films are at their best when Robinson is in the scenes but a bit plodding when he is absent.

(1) Peter Ustinov as Emperor Nero in "Qua Vadis" (1951)

Ustinov basically set the template for playing mad/eccentric Roman emperors in this 1951 film, but even today his performance still shocks by its psychic energy, complex irony, and tragicomic pathos. His role also digs deep into what it means to be emperor. 

The Roman State was, in a sense, an early incarnation of James Burnham's managerial state, focusing on security, infrastructure, imposing systems, and good management. But for Ustinov's Nero, supreme power is not about such petty things as road maintenance and raising the living standards of the rabble. Instead he lives for art, the divine, and doing the "uncommon," even when it involves the destruction or Rome. His talents are far from suited to his sublime endeavours, however, leading his character into bathos with lines like "My new Rome will spring from the loins of fire."

This is one of the most comedic depictions of a Roman Emperor, but rather than shallow laughs, the comedy digs deep and reveals potent psychological truth. 


  1. I would have chosen Brian Blessed as Augustus In I, Claudius. Really cracks me up.

  2. Ustinov as Nero - Yes!!! I never get tired of his performance.

    1. Ustinov is the only guy I ever asked your an autograph.
      That was in 2003 and he was already in a wheelchair.
      I asked him to add a quick proverb to it. You know what he wrote?
      "To be or not to be.
      I'd rather be."

    2. The saying I've always heard attributed to Ustinov is "War is the terrorism of the rich; terrorism is the war of the poor." Put that way, it sounds pretty Marxist. It would be more accurate to substitute powerful and weak for rich and poor, albeit the categories have much overlap.

  3. It's amazing the Roman Empire stood for a 1,000 years if you go by Hollywood and many historians. They focus either on wars, failures, atrocities, lurid stuff or dysfunction and ignore or downplay the day to day brilliance of those empires and The People in them.
    The Roman Empire, as well as many other empires, were actually testaments to organization, innovation, bravery, individualism but also cooperation and yuuuuuge ideas- and a society ans structure that supported those yuuuge ideas to fruition. The work, not of one Emperor but of a whole society- from top to bottom.

    I like the website and the attitude attached to this article Revolution and Empire. Way to go.

    1. I'm for the white people right now. Not interested in shaming them any further- but building them up one way or another. or both.

  4. No John Hurt as Caligula in I, Claudius?

    1. The Caligula slot was pinched by Jay Robinson.