Since the reign of the Roman Empire lasted for more than a millennia — punctuated with larger-than-life figures and enough political intrigue, backstabbing and betrayal to make Game of Thrones seem quaint by comparison — it’s no wonder it has served as a cinematic staple since the advent of the medium. And with a history that vast and storied, it lends itself to a variety of genres, from sweeping epic adventures to small-scale stories of individual adversity.
With that in mind, here’s a selection of films available to stream online, so your binge-watching can be filled with swords, sandals and varying degrees of historical accuracy.
A classic Hollywood prestige picture that, thanks to star Kirk Douglas, was helmed by a young Stanley Kubrick from a script by then-blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. It tells the story of a slave who’s constant defiance lands him in the gladiator fighting pits before leading a massive slave revolt. Despite near universal praise, Kubrick wound up resenting his lack of control over the script so much that he made sure he was given the final say in every film he’d direct after.
Ben Hur – (Google)
An epic film in scope and running time, Ben Hur is the story of a man battling the Roman Empire, and ends up in slavery as a result. Think of the plot as a reverse Spartacus, but with a game-changing cameo by Jesus. It also has an elaborate climax — a chariot race that involved a cast of more than 15,000 extras — that is so engaging it managed to cultivate rumors of a stuntman’s onscreen death for years to come.
Gladiator – (Netflix)
Largely credited for the resurgence of the historical-fiction subgenre, director Ridley Scott’s surprisingly accurate film stars Russell Crowe as he plays the fictional Maximus, a respected general for the Roman Empire who, after the murder of his family, is captured and reduced to slavery. Inevitably, his military expertise lands him in the throws of gladiatorial combat, eventually facing the man who betrayed him.
Life of Brian – (iTunes)
Monty Python’s seminal religious satire focuses on a mistaken messiah, born next door to Jesus on the same day. As an adult, he grows resentful of the Roman occupation of his home, eventually taking up with the Peoples Front of Judea to take up arms against them. The film’s controversial content meant for a troubled production, and at one point had to be bailed out by George Harrison. It became a runaway box-office success upon release, despite (or because of) it being banned or severely restricted with an X rating in several locations across the UK.
Cleopatra – (Netflix)
Another sweeping historical saga filmed near the end of Hollywood’s golden age, Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra was mired in production difficulties so severe it nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Upon its release, the story of Egyptian queen Cleopatra around her relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony was greeted with a lukewarm response from audiences and critics; however, Elizabeth Taylor’s performance is near-universally praised, and it remains one of her most iconic roles.
Centurion – (Hulu)
A gritty, violent war film written and directed by Neil Marshall, Centurion stars Michael Fassbender and The Wire’s Dominic West as Roman soldiers trapped behind enemy lines after their legion is ambushed. Despite Fassbender’s star power, the film never found much in the way of box-office success. Stylistically, it finds itself somewhere between 300 and Apocalypto, though basing its story on a relatively obscure Roman legend allows for a narrative freedom that isn’t confined to the actions of historical significance.
The Robe – (Google)
An unusual approach to a unique premise, The Robe focuses on the Roman military unit responsible for carrying out the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Afterward, the unit’s commander, Marcellus, wins Jesus’s robe in a dice game. The robe is then promptly stolen by his recently freed slave, a devout Christian named Demetrius, as the rest of the film laments on a theme of guilt and redemption through faith.
Julius Caesar – (Amazon)
Nine years before his cost-prohibitive take on Cleopatra, Joseph Mankiewicz directed this adaptation of Shakespeare’s play regarding the events that unfold in the wake of Caesar’s assassination. The film all but legitimized Marlon Brando as a major talent, as his turn as Marc Antony was so resonating that James Mason, who played Brutus, was worried about losing the spotlight to him.
Caligula – (Google)
A film that lives in notoriety for a number of reasons, the biographical look at the life of Roman Emperor Caligula stands as the only film produced by Penthouse Magazine, as the idea was to create a large-scale, big-budget adult film. The effort predictably did not go well, and the final cut of the film was considered so drastically different in tone and content that both the original screenwriter and director disavowed the film. It does live on, both through cult status and as an ambitious footnote in cinema history.