Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Multimedia Volume 53 Number 4, July/August 2000

Reanimating Rome
by Nicholas Nicastro

[image] Coming at you this summer, Maximus (Russell Crowe) takes on an opponent nearly twice his size in Gladiator. (Jaap Buitendijk/DreamWorks)

Critics often say that each generation gets the Rome it wants. In the heyday of the silent epics, all ancient cities looked like Sodom and existed only to fall. At the dawn of wide-screen films, Rome had the broad, uncluttered roadways and suburban villas dreamt of by post-war breadwinners. By the early sixties, Stanley Kubrick presented the definitive Cold War Rome in Spartacus, while Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione's 1980 Caligula made the erotic subtexts of earlier epics as brazenly obvious as his magazine's airbrushed centerfolds. What is not often remarked, however, is that Rome herself was complex enough to sustain all of these celluloid ephemera.

As Ridley Scott's Gladiator notes at its outset, an empire with a greater proportion of the world's population in its time than modern China, the United States and Russia combined was difficult to comprehend, even for the Romans. Partly because of moviegoers' changing tastes and partly because of production costs, nobody even attempted an ancient spectacle on the scale of Anthony Mann's 1964 The Fall of the Roman Empire until Scott's new film.

We might read Gladiator as an "anti-urban epic" about General Maximus (Russell Crowe), an army veteran and country homeowner who has no taste for citified political life and yearns to return to his farm in Spain. Or it could be taken as "classics lite" for a generation raised on professional wrestling. What is refreshing about Scott's film, however, is that it is suffused with a real respect for its setting and subject. The film has its epic prerequisites in order: fully one-third of the circumference of the Colosseum physically reconstructed to a height of 52 feet (and the rest completed via computer imaging), 10,000 costumes created, 2,500 ancient weapons mocked up, and 16,000 flaming arrows shot in the opening battle scene.

DreamWorks Pictures
and Universal Pictures
Ridley Scott, director
150 minutes, rated R

See also, "Sandals, Sweat, and Swords" and give your opinion of the movie!

Nicholas Nicastro, a writer and archaeologist at Cornell University, produced the 1996 film Science and Sacrilege: Native Americans, Archaeology, and the Law.

The Virtual Silk Road
by Shareen Blair Brysac

Perhaps no topic in the art world throws off more heat than restitution. With the world's museums awash in looted art, some are turning to the web to address the discomfort curators now feel about the way objects were collected in the past. An especially promising project involves Central Asian treasures that have been dispersed worldwide. Now one can traverse a virtual Silk Road. With initial underwriting from the Taiwanese Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange and the United Kingdom Lottery Heritage Fund, the British Library has established a searchable data base of manuscripts in Chinese and English. Nonspecialists are also able to retrace Sir Aurel Stein's third expedition (1913-1916) along the Silk Road by viewing his maps, photographs, and artifacts.

German geographer and geologist Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905) coined the expression "Silk Road" to describe ancient trade routes between China and the West, although this was something of a misnomer because other commodities besides silk were traded. The Silk Road was also a pathway for ideas and creeds such as Buddhism, which spread along its path from India to China. During its heyday, which coincided with China's Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907), dozens of important towns such as Kashgar, Turfan, and Kucha thrived along the road's two main routes, which passed north and south of the Taklamakan Desert to meet at Kashgar.

The race for the Silk Road's antiquities started in 1890 when an Indian Army intelligence officer, Captain Hamilton Bower, returned to Calcutta with 51 birch-bark leaves of a manuscript acquired from a treasure hunter in Kucha along the Silk Road's northern route. They proved to be the oldest known Indian manuscript. Bower's discovery prompted a scramble for artifacts, mostly by Europeans, who carried off a wealth of manuscripts, wall paintings, silk banners, and other spoils from the region.

Arguably the most important of these treasures were the manuscripts, scrolls, and fragments discovered ca. 1900 by Wang Yuanlu, a Chinese monk, in the Mogao caves near the oasis town of Dunhuang in northwestern China's Gansu Province. The so-called Library Cave contained perhaps as many 50,000 items--most of them Chinese Buddhist documents on paper dating between A.D. 400 and 1000. Stein and his rivals gave donations to Wang's conservation efforts, or, as the Chinese believe, duped and bribed Wang to part with most of his treasure. The weakness and corruption of the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty made the plunder possible, and Chinese anger at the "foreign devils" has not abated.

Shareen Blair Brysac is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America