Category Archives: Leonidas

The Wandering King: Book 3 Begun

phalanx

 

Those that have been enjoying The Wandering King series will be happy to hear that I’ve started work on book 3.  I used the year’s hiatus to work on a contemporary novel.  After spending 5 years immersed in the ancient world, I needed to spend some time writing about today’s world.

The subtitle for book 3 hasn’t been selected yet.  If you’d like to weigh in on the subtitle or suggest one of your own, feel free to do so in the comments section.  Here are a couple that I’m mulling over…

  • Glorious Fall the Valiant
  • Black Hulled Ships
  • Perils of War
  • Land of Brave Men
  • The Sworn Band
  • Victory or Death

The lines “glorious fall the valiant” and “land of brave men,” come from the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus.  “Black hulled ships,” comes from Homer.  The “perils of war” comes from Thucydides.  “Sworn band” is a translation of the Spartan smallest military unit, the enomotia.  A variation for the subtitle could be “Sworn Band Leader,” which was an enomotarch, which is comparable to the modern title of lieutenant.

Where Book 3 is Going

In book 1, Summer, Harvest, War, you journeyed with Euryanax south to Libya and north to Corinth and Delphi.  In book 2, With This Shield, you followed him west to Italy and Sicily.

In book 3, you’ll venture east with our hero to Thrace, Scythia and Asia Minor (modern Turkey) where he’ll take part in a 6-year struggle called the Ionian Revolt.  Though not written about in any novels that I’m aware of, the Ionian Revolt is covered in Herodotus.  It was a revolt by the Greek cities in Asia Minor against the High King Darius of Persia, and is seen as the precursor to the more famous Persian War.a82f442a443b716d8ffa57bc15e88771

Before Eury goes east, he has some unfinished business to take care of at home in Sparta.  When we last left him, he was marching away from Athens with the Spartan army after they had just ousted the Athenian tyrant Hippias.  His uncle Leonidas had put him in charge of a handful of young Athenian boys, who we are told are hostages, but King Cleomenes wants to disguise this fact by having Eury train them in the agoge.

Book 3 opens with us learning that Eury has been given the responsibility of training a group of young boys from all over Hellas.  Cleomenes has expanded upon his original idea, and offered to teach the sons of his allies in Boeotia, Arcadia and Macedon the Spartan way of war.  Like many of the innovative things Cleomenes did in history, this is not a popular idea among his fellow, conservative Spartans.

Among Eury’s students are some young, historical personages, such as Alexandros son of King Amnytas (Alexander the Great’s great-great-great grandfather), Alcibiades of the Alcaemonids (grandfather of his famous namesake), and Leontiades, the future Theban commander at the Battle of Thermopylae.  Several others are based on minor characters mentioned by Herodotus in The Histories, some of whom, like Attaginus, end up allied with the Persians during the Persian War.

Eury’s cousin and chief rival and antagonist, Pausanias, is also training a ‘herd’ of boys, the salamanders.  As they have a 8-year head start on Eury’s ‘turtles,’ Pausanias’ salamanders are  a lean, mean pack of wolves, whose main goal in life is to kill Eury’s charges, of which they’ve already done away with 3 at the start of the story.

How Eury manages to help the turtles survive the agoge and one of Sparta’s most brutal rites of passage, the Festival of Artemis Orthia, make up the first two chapters of book 3, which I am working on now.

Diversion to Athens

If you’ll recall from book 2, after the Spartans overthrew the Athenian tyrant Hippias they left one of their puppets, a rich nobleman named Isagoras in charge.  Isagoras promptly exiled ‘the father of democracy’ Cleisthenes from Athens.  If you’ve read Herodotus, you know that Cleisthenes eventually returns and “took the common people into his party” enabling him to oust Isagoras.

Although I admire the Spartans, one of the things that is not so admirable about them is their aversion to democracy.  In defense of the Spartans, philosophers like Aristotle and Plato were not exactly keen on the Athenians version of ‘pure’ democracy either.  Many during the age (particularly wealthy landowners) viewed it as ‘rule by the unwashed, uneducated rabble.’  Cleomenes attempted to interfere in Athenian politics, where he wanted to get rid of Cleisthenes and reinstate Isagoras.

As the Athenian democracy survived, you can probably guess that Cleomenes’ plans backfire on him.  Once the Peloponnesian League and his co-King Demaratus learned what he was up to, they walked out on him.  Cleomenes had cleverly planned to have Sparta, Thebes and Chalcis attack Athens from three sides, but once the Spartans left with Demaratus, the Athenians rallied and beat the Thebans and men of Chalcis in two separate battles.

What role will Eury play in all of this?  You’ll see.

Reunited with Miltiades

Hopefully I’m not giving away too much of the story  by saying Euryanax is forced to leave Sparta.  When Eury does, he returns young Cimon to his father Miltiades, who as we learned at the end of book 2 was returning to the Thracian Chersonese to reclaim his lands there.

Why did I introduce Miltiades in book 2?  Readers familiar with Greek history will recognize him as the key strategos of the Athenian forces at the famous Battle of Marathon.  If there is a book 4 in the series, it’ll cover Marathon, where Miltiades has his historic day in sun.

For purposes of book 3, Herodotus also records that Miltiades was involved in some adventures prior to Marathon.  He captured the islands of Lemnos, Imbros and Tenedos in the Aegean Sea, taking them away from the Persian Empire.  Miltiades also has a part to play in …

The Ionian Revolt

hoplite3The last thing I’ll say about book 3 is that the same way that Eury was reunited with Theokles during the Battle at Phalerum in book 2, his friend will reappear in time for the Ionian Revolt’s famous Battle of Lade.  There will be some surprises regarding Theo and his mistress Stesilaus, so I’ll close here before I give anyway any spoilers.

The important thing to know is that book 3 is begun and I am excited to be working on it.  Don’t want to promise a completion date as that just adds the pressure of a deadline.  Will only say that it took three years to write book 1 and two years to complete book 2.  It’ll take a few years to deliver the story to you, but for me, this is the fun part.  Just like you, I’m curious to see what happens next to our hero, Euryanax.

With This Shield: Historical Characters

othryades-mourant

Of the 60 men and women in With This Shield’s character listing, more than 40 are based on real people from ancient Greek history.  Below you will find some additional information on 15 of these historical figures.  Am also including the pronunciation of their name, as readers have told me they find this helpful.

SPOILER ALERT:  Though the data below will not give away the plot of With This Shield, in some cases it will tell you what became of the character in history.  I’ve been careful to leave out events covered in the next book in the series, so it does not give away too much information.

Aeschylus (S-kuh-lus)

While only a teenager in With This Shield, Aeschylus will grow up to be one of the most famous dramatic playwrights in Greek literature.  Twenty years later, he and his two brothers, Cynegeirus and Ameinias, would take part in the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.).

Of Aeschylus’ 90 plays, only 7 survive.  One of his earliest works, The Persians, is based on his experiences in the naval Battle of Salamis (479 B.C.).  It is unique among the Greek tragic plays in that it describes a recent historical event.

Aristides (ah-ris-TĪDE-ēz)

In The Histories, Herodotus describes Aristides as the “best and most honorable man in Athens.”  In later years he was called “Aristides the Just.”

His life is recorded by the Greek author Plutarch in his book The Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans.  Plutarch states that Aristides and Themistocles were friends when they were young, but they had a falling out because “…both were in love with Stesilaus…”

My favorite story about Aristides occurred when he was older. The Athenians were voting on who to ostracize (the ‘winner’ being exiled for 10 years).  An illiterate voter who did not recognize Aristides approached him and asked him to write the name of Aristides on the ballot.  When the statesman asked the man if Aristides had ever wronged him, the man said, “No, I do not even know him, but it irritates me to hear everyone call him ‘the Just’.”  Honest to the end, Aristides wrote his own name on the ballot and was exiled.

Callicrates (kal-ē-KRAT-ēz)

Callicrates is only mentioned once by Herodotus, who says he was the most handsome man in the Greek army.  Thirty years after the events described in With This Shield, he would die at the Battle of Plataea (479 B.C.) while the Greeks were waiting for the Persians to charge and an arrow struck him in the eye.

Herodotus wrote:  “Having been carried to the rear, as he lay dying, Callicrates said he was  happy to die for Hellas, but it grieved him that he did not get a chance to prove his bravery, that he did no acts of valor worthy of the spirit he had in him to perform great deeds.”

Callimachus (kal-ah-MOCK-us)

Twenty years after the events described in With This Shield, Herodotus lists Callimachus as the polemarch (commanding officer) at the Battle of Marathon.  Callimachus led the Athenian right wing and was killed after the Persians were routed and the Greeks were chasing them to their ships.

In Athens, it was customary for the father of the bravest man killed in the battle to give the public funeral oration over the dead.  Callimachus’ father and the father of Aeschylus (whose brother Cynegeirus was also slain) argued over whose son was the bravest.  Callimachus’ father won.

Years later the Athenians erected a statue on the acropolis next to the Parthenon in his honor, called “The Nike of Callimachus” (the Victory of Callimachus).

Cimon (SĪ-mon)

Miltiades’ youngest son would go on to become one of the most famous statesmen and generals in Athenian history.  My depiction of Cimon is based on what we know from Herodotus and Plutarch, who claim he was a great supporter of the Spartans.  In later life he wore his hair long in the Spartan style, and named his first son, Lacedaemonius, after the Spartan homeland, Lacedaemonia.

After the Greco-Persian Wars, when the Greeks formed the Delian League to prevent future Persian incursions (the League would become the precursor to the Athenian Empire), Cimon was named as its principal commander.  Cimon led most of the League’s military operations from 475-463 BC.  During that period, he and Aristides drove the Spartans under Pausanias out of Byzantium (later called Constantinople and today called Istanbul).

His most famous military victory came at the Battle of Eurymedon River (466 B.C.), when he captured or destroyed over 200 Persian warships.

Cleisthenes (KLĪS-thenes)

Cleisthenes was the grandson of the tyrant of the Greek city of Sicyon (also named Cleisthenes).  Among his more famous descendants in the Alcmaeonid clan were the Athenian statesman Pericles (builder of the Parthenon) and the orator, statesman and general Alcibiades.

Cleisthenes is remembered in history as the ‘father of democracy.’  While some people consider his reformation of the Athenian constitution giving equal voting rights to all citizens a benevolent act, more than likely he did it to break the hold of the wealthy plains tribes, the Pedieis, over Athens, giving each of the tribes a level playing field.

Cleisthenes called his reforms “isonomia” (equality under the law).  It wasn’t until later they would become known as “demokratia” (rule by the people).

Cleomenes (KLE-ah-men-ēz)

Even though Cleomenes reigned for 30 years, during which time he was the key player in Spartan politics, and he accomplished numerous, slick diplomatic maneuvers, Herodotus does not paint a flattering picture of him.  He accuses him of being unscrupulous, a drunk and insane.  Historians tend to believe that whoever Herodotus spoke to in Sparta to gather information about Cleomenes, was probably among his worst enemies.

Cylon (SĪGH-on)

What we know about Cylon comes from the Syrian neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus, who wrote in his book, The Life of Pythagoras:

“Cylon was a leading citizen of Croton with all of the advantages of noble birth, fame and riches; but otherwise he was a difficult, violent and tyrannical man who eagerly desired to participate in the Pythagorean way of life.  He approached Pythagoras, but was rejected because of his character.  Unaccustomed to rejection, Cylon vowed to seek revenge and destroy Pythagoras and his followers.”

The story in With This Shield about the alliance between Cylon and Ninon, who used phony, forged documents, to discredit Pythagoras and inspire the populace to burn down Milo’s house are found in Iamblichus.  Whether there is any truth to the story, or if it was part of an oral tradition, is hard to say as Iamblichus wrote 700 years after Pythagoras’ death.

Elpinice (L-pin- ēz)

The daughter of Miltiades, Elpinice, is known from Plutarch’s Life of Pericles, where she appears twice.  On both occasions she confronts and rebukes Pericles regarding his political actions.

After the events described in With This Shield, she became the lover of the painter Polygnotus who used her likeness in a painting of Trojan women on a stoa in the Athenian agora.  Later, the richest man in Athens, Callias, fell in love with her.  At the time, her brother Cimon owed the Athenian state a large sum of money and he married her to Callias to pay off the family’s debts.

Gorgo (GORE-gō)

Euryanax’s cousin Gorgo is among the few women mentioned by Herodotus in The Histories.  She is notable for being the daughter of a Spartan king, the wife of a Spartan king and the mother of a Spartan king.

Though little is known about her childhood, like other Spartan girls from a noble family, she would have exercised daily, been well educated, could read and write, and do mathematics.  She also would have learned how to drive a chariot and taken part in Sparta’s many festivals, which included dancing and singing in a chorus.

Gorgo is presented by Herodotus and Plutarch as an extremely wise, well-respected woman, who offered sage advice on several occasions.  Her most famous remark came when an Athenian woman asked her, “Why are you Spartan woman the only ones who can rule over men?”  To which Gorgo replied:  “Because we are the only women to give birth to real men.”

Miltiades (mil-TĪE-ah-dēz)

Miltiades is among the more famous Athenians appearing in With This Shield.  Will resist talking about his most well-known exploits, which will be detailed in the third book in the series.

Miltiades’ family, the Philaids, claimed descent from the Trojan War hero Ajax the Great.  Miltiades’ father won the Olympic Games three times for chariot racing, making him so popular it inspired the jealousy of Athens’ tyrant Hippias, who had him murdered.

Miltiades’ uncle, known as Miltiades the Elder, established an Athenian colony in the Thracian Chersonese (today known as the Gallipoli peninsula) where he set himself up as a tyrant.  When Miltiades the Elder died the tyranny passed to Miltiades’ brother Stesagoras, and after his death, to Miltiades.  Miltiades cemented good relations with the Thracian tribes in the area by marrying Hegesiplye, the daughter of the Thracian King Olorus.

The Greek historian Thucydides, author of The History of the Peloponnesian War, was a Philaid.  His father was named Olorus.  Whether it was the same Olorus related by marriage to Miltiades, is unknown.

Othryades (oh-THRAY-dēz)

As noted in the first two books of The Wandering King, Othryades was famous in Sparta as the lone survivor of the Battle of Champions (540 B.C.) between 300 Spartans and 300 Argives.

According to Herodotus, after the battle Othryades was so upset that his companions had all been killed, he committed suicide.  My apologies to Herodotus for letting Othryades live.

The image at the top of this post is a photograph of a sculpture done in 1779 by the French artist Sergel, titled “Othryades the Spartan Dying.”  It is on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Stesilaus (STES-ah-lāy-us)

The “beautiful and brilliant” Stesilaus from the island of Keos is mentioned in Plutarch’s Lives as the cause of the lifelong enmity between the two Athenian statesmen Aristides and Themistocles.

Like Othryades, I’ve taken some creative license with Stesilaus by turning “him” into a “her.”  It’s not that I’m anti-gay.  Not in the slightest.  I just did not think the story would read as well if two of my characters were fighting over a beautiful young boy.  That said, it’s important to realize the role homosexuality played in ancient Greece.

Says Plutarch of Aristides and Themistocles, “They were both in love with Stesilaus of Keos, the most beautiful and brilliant of youths; whom they both cherished so passionately, that not even after the boy’s beauty had faded did they lay aside their rivalry.”

Themistocles (tha-MIS-tōe-clēz)

While I don’t know how many readers are familiar with Themistocles, he is among the most famous Athenian statesmen and generals of all time.  I don’t want to reveal too much about him, as his story will continue in the next book in the series.

My depiction of Themistocles in With This Shield is taken from a tidbit of information I picked up while reading Plutarch’s Life of Themistocles.  Plutarch describes the young Themistocles by saying, “The wildest colts make the best horses.”

He also says that Themistocles was thrown out of his family by his father Neocles for drinking and carousing.  Though this information about Themistocles is debated, it helped form my characterization of him as brilliant, but somewhat wild and unscrupulous.

Plutarch also says that Themistocles was among the first people in history to become a lawyer to launch a political career.

Xanthippus (zan-TIP-ē-us)

Xanthippus was a wealthy aristocrat in Athens, famous in history as the father of the statesmen Pericles, who built the Parthenon and led Athens into its golden age.

Xanthippus married a niece of Cleisthenes named Agariste (Pericles’ mother).  Although not an Alcmaeonid, he became closely linked with their family.

Like Aristides, Themistocles, Miltiades, Callimachus and Aeschylus he would fight in the Battle of Marathon.  His greatest military victory would come in the last engagement of the Greco-Persian Wars as the commander of the Athenian naval forces at the decisive Battle of Mycale (479 B.C.).

Character request?

Want to know more about a character in The Wandering King series?  Let me know, and I’ll do my best to comply.

Sword & Sandal Movie Reviews

When I was doing my student teaching, my 9th graders’ mantra was, “Why do we have to learn how to read?  Can’t we just watch the video?”

As you are reading this blog, I take it for granted that you enjoy reading, but like my 9th graders, you probably enjoy watching a good flick too.  The following, in no particular order, are some of my favorite picks and pans for films dealing with ancient history.

The links on the movie titles will take you to the movie reviews found on Rotten Tomatoes.  If you’ve never been to the site, it gives you access to all the top critics’ reviews.  Below the link are the number of critics that reviewed the movie, their average rating (out of 100), the number of moviegoers that rated the movie, and their rating, followed by my grade.

gladiator_ver3_xlg

Gladiator (2000)
166 critics 77%
34M moviegoers 85%
me 90%

One of the best movies about the ancient world of all time.  I give it credit for starting a renaissance in movies about ancient Greece and Rome.  Though I enjoyed the film, my only real problem with it, was where it deviated from history.  Emperor Marcus Aurelius was not murdered by his son Commodus, but died of an illness in Vienna at age 58.  He had made Commodus his co-emperor three years before his death.  He also had 13 children, five of whom out-lived him.  Commodus was known for his love of the gladitorial games, where he would do things like shoot hundreds of animals with his bow from the safety of his box seat in the coliseum (on one such occasion he shot 100 lions) or he would have groups of sick citizens chained together and club them to death himself (or he would collect his own wounded soldiers and slay them with a sword).  Commodus was not killed by the fictional Maximus, but was assassinated by his own officers.  They tried poisoning him, but after Commodus vomited the food, they strangled him to death.  Despite these inaccuracies, you can’t beat the movie’s opening battle scene or the gladitorial scenes.


300a300
(2006)
226 critics 60%
1.4M moviegoers 88%
me 40%

Though I enjoyed parts of this movie, I spent the vast majority of my time in the theater groaning.  What does one expect from a movie based on a comic book?  For example, the Spartans did not go bare-chested into battle.  They wouldn’t have lasted long if they had.  Too, Xerxes did not shave his head, wear nose-rings or a loin cloth.  Take a look at a piece of ancient artwork that depicts the Persians and you’ll see that they wore long beards and pants.  The thing that I found most disappointing was how they depicted the ancient phalanx.  In the battle scenes they started formed up in a shieldwall, but as soon as the fight would begin, the Spartans would break ranks and devolve into a Matrix-like slow motion, hack ‘n slash fest.  What made the Spartans invincible was their training, heavy armor, and their ability to fight in an impenatrable, close order, shoulder to shoulder formation.  It’s diappointing that in Hollywood it’s more important to show comic book blood spraying across the screen than an actual phalanx in action.

300

The 300 Spartans (1962)
N/R critics
55K moviegoers 72%
me 95%

According to Frank Miller, who wrote the comic book that was the basis for the movie ‘300,’ he was inspired by a film he’d seen as a young boy, ‘The 300 Spartans.’  Like Miller, I’d seen the same film as a kid and loved it.  All of which makes me wonder why Miller injected charging rhinos, dual sword wielding ninjas and an oversized giant, as they weren’t anywhere to be found in the original.  I suppose that’s what’s known as creative license.  The sad thing is, today’s young people, whose knowledge of ancient events may come from the movies, are going to have a horribly distorted view of actual events.  Though the 1962 version of ‘The 300 Spartans’ has no special effects, and was done on a low budget, it’s a fairly accurate depiction of what happened at Thermopylae.  Richard Egan, though not as muscled as Gerard Butler, is a better actor, and the film includes Sir Ralph Richardson as Themistocles (a crucial character the Frank Miller version leaves out), and David Farrar as a very convincing Xerxes.  I can do without ‘300s’ pumped up pecs and digital effects.  I’ll take a more historically accurate film any day.

troy

Troy (2004)
221 critics 54%
819K 72%
me 40%

As The Iliad is one of my favorite pieces of literature, when the movie ‘Troy’ came out, I rushed to the movie theater, where I was promptly disappointed.  In the credits they state the movie is ‘based on The Iliad.’  A better description would have been, ‘loosely based.’  The producers took so many liberties with the Trojan War, that anyone that loves Homer’s epic poems will hardly recognize the story.  For one, Brad Pitt is no Achilles.  He’s too small.  The very sight of Achilles struck fear into the hearts of his enemies.  Probably the only hysteria Brad Pitt inspired during the shooting of ‘Troy’ is when the filmmakers saw the size of his bar tab.  Sure, they got right the part about Paris stealing Helen, but they botched what happens to each.  In the original, Paris dies and Helen is reclaimed by her husband Menelaus and the two of them live a long happy life together.  In the movie, Menelaus dies and Paris and Helen run off together.  In the ancient Greek version, marriage is sacosant.  You steal someone’s wife, you are doomed.  In Hollywood, you steal someone’s wife you ride off into the sunset together.  I could go on and on about all of the things ‘Troy’ gets wrong, but reliving it is just too depressing.  Even though The Iliad has been a classic for 3,000 years, the filmmakers seemed to think they could improve on the original.  They didn’t.

Alexander

Alexander (2004)
194 critics 16%
236K moviegoers 39%
me 70%

I’m not a big fan of Alexander the Great, but I’ve read enough about him to know that Oliver Stone did a wonderful job of researching his story and for the most part stuck to the actual historical facts.  Where the movie goes horribly awry is the casting of Colin Farrell as Alexander.  It’s one of the worst acting performances I’ve ever seen.  Remember George C. Scott in the movie ‘Patton’?  Now there was a general.  You can understand why his soldiers followed him across Europe.  I couldn’t imagine a poodle following Colin Farrell even if he was loaded up with doggie treats, much less the Macedonian army following him across 16 countries.  If you manage to block out Colin Farrell, the rest of the movie isn’t bad.  Oliver Stone pays a great deal of attention to Alexander’s generals, troops like the Silver Shields, and correctly arms the phalanx with the Macedonian’s long spears called the sarissa.  The depiction of Babylon, though probably computer generated, is awe-inspiring, as is the Battle of Gaugamela, that is if you delete Colin Farrell’s less-than-inspiring speech.  Farrell spends so much time weeping in the film, instead marching his army back to Greece, he could have sailed them back on all his tears.

Alexander Burton

Alexander the Great (1956)
6 critics 35%
5,325 moviegoers 56%
me 75%

Though somewhat old, this is a much better movie about Alexander the Great, for one big reason:  it has the British actor Richard Burton playing the leading role.  It lacks today’s special effects, it’s not a 3 hour Oliver Stone extravaganza, and it only touches on some of Alexander’s life, but it does have one great scene.  When Alexander was in Asia Minor at a city called Gordium, he encountered something known as the famous ‘Gordian Knot.’  As the story goes, whoever could untie this huge, tangled mess of ropes, would conquer all of Asia.  Richard Burton looks at the knot, draws his sword, and in one swing cuts the knot in two.  Not a word spoken, but a brilliant scene.

I, Claudius (1976)
133 reviews on Amazon (105 gave it 5-stars)I Claudius
me:  95%

I, Claudius is a made-for-TV, BBC mini-series, based on the novel of the same name by Robert Graves.  I, Claudius is one of the best programs about ancient Rome ever produced.  If you’re looking for a Gladiator-like action movie, pass I, Claudius by. If you’re looking for an intelligent, Masterpiece Theater-like inside look at the palace intrigue, murder, and back-stabbing that went on in the Imperial Roman family during the reign of Augustus Caesar, then this show was made for you.  The members of the royal family stop at nothing, including poisoning their own relatives, to jockey for position in the royal line of succession.  Augustus’ wife Livia, played marvelously by Sian Phillips, is the most fiendish of the bunch.  I lost track of all of the people she murdered to ensure her son Tiberius was selected as the next emperor.  What’s sad about all of this is that some extremely worthy, noble, talented people like Germanicus end up getting knocked off in the mad grab for power.  Ironically, Claudius survives all of this mayhem because he’s lame and he has a stutter.  Livia and the rest of the royal family consider him an idiot, so after the family does each other in, the only one left with royal blood to claim the throne is Claudius, played to perfection by British actor Derek Jacobi.  If you’ve heard about the antics of people like Caligula, Messalina and Nero and want to find out why they are so infamous, I, Claudius gives you the inside track.  While the program is not on Rotton Tomatoes, the link above is to its page on Amazon.  Amazon Prime owners can watch it for free.

Agora1Agora (2009)
89 critics 53%
21,100 moviegoers 64%
me 85%

This movie did not do well with critics, but I came away thinking it was an enjoyable film about a period of ancient history I knew nothing about.  It follows the life of a Greek philosopher, astronomer and mathematican named Hypatia played by Rachel Weisz.  The story takes place in the city of Alexandria in Egypt and has a great deal to do with the emergence of Christianity and the Christians persecution of the pagan religions.  From what I’ve read by people who know more than I do about the 4th century A.D., the movie is a bit heavy handed when it comes to the Christians, who appear more like modern day Taliban, and it seems the Library of Alexandria and lighthouse were already destroyed.  As I was ignorant of those facts, I found Hypatia’s story interesting and the depiction of Alexandria quite fascinating.

Jason

Jason and the Argonauts  (1963)
35 critics 94%
22,100 moviegoers 72%
me 90%

As a young person this was one of my favorite movies of all time.  Nice to see it received a good response by the critics, and somewhat surprising audiences did not appreciate it as well.  Though the special effects of the titan Talos, the harpies and the ‘children of the hydra’s teeth’ look rather dated now, at the time, they were the work of the master of stop motion animation, Ray Harryhausen.  There are no actors in the film you’ve ever heard of, nor is the acting anything special, it’s just a fun adventure story.

ulyssesdouglasUlysses (1954)
N/R critics
1,710 moviegoers 46%
me 95%

This is an oldie but goodie, starring Kirk Douglas as Ulysses.  Similar to other films done during the period, they look faded now, but the producers made a strong attempt to stick to the original story from Homer’s Odyssey.  The scenes where Ulysses and his crew are captured by the cyclops, when he listens to the song of the Sirens, and when he finally returns home to slay the suitors are classics.

The Odyssey (1997)
N/R critics
7,630 moviegoers 60%
me 60%

This was a made-for-television miniseries starring Armand Assanti as Odysseus (Ulysses).  It seemed to go on longer than Odysseus’ ten-year voyage home.  Though not as lavish, nor did it include Vanessa Williams, Isabella Rossellini or Bernadette Peters, I much preferred the original with Kirk Douglas.

Spartacus  (1960)spartacus1
49 critics 96%
75,700 moviegoers 79%
me 90%

This is another golden oldie starring Kirk Douglas, this time as the gladiator turned rebel leader, Spartacus.  He is supported by a great cast including Sir Laurence Olivier and Jean Simmons and benefits from the directorial talents of Stanley Kubrick.  There’s plenty of sword play and battle scenes that include a cast of thousands, but my favorite moment in the film comes when Spartacus is training to be a gladiator.  As Jean Simmons, playing a slave named Varinia, is pouring wine for Spartacus, as he takes the cup, he gently caresses her hand.  It’s an extremely small, tender moment in a 3-hour spectacle, but it’s that sort of attention to detail about the characters that make it a great film.

Clash of the Titans (1981)
38 critics 66%
55,900 moviegoers 68%
me 40%

This is a horrible movie about the mythical hero Perseus starring Harry Hamlin.  What a great actor like Sir Laurence Olivier is doing in this film, I have no clue.  It also includes the stop motion animation by Ray Harryhausen, but in this film, it’s pretty lackluster stuff.

Clash of the Titans (2010)
238 critics 28%
280K moviegoers 43%
me 30%

Why anyone would want to re-make a bad movie is a mystery.  The only good thing I can say about this film is that Wrath of the Titans (2012) and Immortals (2011) are worse.

Ben Hur (1959)ben_hur
36 critics 89%
103K moviegoers 81%
me 95%

What list of films about the ancient world would be complete without mentioning Ben Hur.  The chariot race is probably one of the most famous scenes in movie history.  Am just glad Charlton Heston was not toting a rifle throughout the film.

The Ten Commandments (1956)
32 critics 91%
58K moviegoers 83%
me 95%

Another great Charlton Heston film, this time about Moses.  When I first saw it as a young person, I could not help but think Moses was an idiot for abandoning the war-loving Egyptians in favor of the poor Judeans.  I must not have been paying enough attention in church.

Julius Caesar (1970)
N/R critics
2,660 moviegoers 40%
me 80%

Yet another Heston film, this time in the role of Mark Anthony in the Shakespearan version of Julis Caesar.  It’s not bad if you can sit through the old English.  The 1953 version starring Marlon Brando, Sir John Gielgud and James Mason received vastly better reviews.

Cleopatra (1963)Cleopatra 2
26 critics 46%
20,000 moviegoers 70%
me 70%

I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to sit through this 3-hour epic starring Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and Richard Burton as Mark Antony.  The climactic sea battle between Antony and Octavian is obviously between toy models and so bad it’s almost comical.  As I recall, the love affair that erupted during the filming between Taylor and Burton (both were married to other people) and resulting scandal eclipsed interest in the actual movie.  It’s $44M cost ($300M today) made it the most expensive movie ever made.