The traditional material of ancient epic, honored more in the breach than in the observance, is kings and battles (to quote Vergil’s famous formulation at Eclogues 6.3, reges et proelia). (Hinds 2000 discusses the uses and abuses of this formula.) Screen epics set in the ancient world have applied this formula faithfully across a century of cinema, from Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914), set during the Second Punic War, to Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), a retelling of the Moses story. What enables the kings-and-battles subject matter of ancient and screen epic, and what might well be the one stable criterion for both, is spatiality — the deployment of space in physical and thematic terms to create the sweeping, spectacular atmosphere we associate with this genre.
This paper explores four different manifestations, or projections, of space in ancient and screen epic. (1) Screen space, particularly widescreen formats from the 1950s onward, which make possible sprawling vistas, whether natural or computer-generated. (See Cook 2016, Chapter 12.) (2, which dovetails with the first) The depiction of large-scale sets and, within them, large-scale events enacted by proverbial casts of thousands (which is the focus of Richards 2008; also Paul 2013). (3) The spatial reach of ancient and screen epic, which is limitless due to the former’s third-person narrative and the latter’s omniscient camera (helpful explorations in Clay 2011). Furthermore, this reach is both horizontal, moving anywhere within the global landscape (even, say, behind closed doors), as well as vertical, ranging as high as Olympus to as low as Tartarus (as Hinds 2002 discusses). (4) The spaciousness of the genre itself, which makes room for other genres, such as elegy and tragedy, even within the same narrative (see especially Curley 2013).
I devote time to each of these four spatial projections, with support from ancient and screen texts. (4), however, is of greatest interest to me, because it exposes tensions and synergies often overlooked in genre-definition, especially the definition of epic. My case studies include Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) and Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora (2009). The first is patently a screen epic that also encompasses tragic and elegiac space; while the second, a tragedy first and foremost, encompasses epic in its global view of human folly. The totalizing ambitions of both films prescribe and complicate the very conception of epic, and suggest that the genre remains as foundational and vibrant as it ever was.
Screening Topographies of Classical Reception