Ancient History: The Director’s Cut

Oliver Stone on cinematic representations of ancient history

The study of cinematic representations of ancient history is one of the most rapidly rising fields of classical scholarship. As an important part of the modern reception of classical antiquity, movies inspired by Greek and Roman myth and history are discussed in academic courses, conferences, textbooks, handbooks, and doctoral theses. Such discussions involve more than a quest for mistakes—a sometimes quite entertaining enterprise. They confront classicists and ancient historians with profound questions concerning their profession: What part does the remote past play in our lives? How do modern treatments of the past reflect contemporary questions and anxieties? How is memory of the past continually constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed?

My father worked in the movie industry in the 1950s and 60s as a producer and leaseholder of one of Greece’s largest movie theaters. This may have been the impetus for me to become a cinephile. However, my fascination with the representation of history on the big screen is part of my interest in how memory is shaped. Many Members of the School of Historical Studies, past and present, share this interest. Adele Reinhartz (Member, 2011–12) is the author of Scripture on the Silver Screen (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) and Jesus of Hollywood (Oxford University Press, 2007); among current Members, the archaeologist Yannis Hamilakis studies the place of the past in modern Mediterranean societies and their media; the ancient historian Nathanael Andrade incorporates movies into undergraduate teaching; and the historian of Latin America Jeff Gould directs historical documentaries.

A discussion at the Institute about history on screen was, therefore, overdue, and the ideal person to kick off such a discussion was Oliver Stone. No other contemporary director has treated controversial historical subjects so often and with so much passion, especially important episodes of postwar American history. His treatment of history reached its high point this year with the release of the documentary The Untold History of the United States, directed, produced, and narrated by Stone and coauthored with Peter Kuznick. An accompanying book was published in 2012. For these reasons, I invited Oliver Stone to deliver this year’s S. T. Lee Lecture. His remarks were followed by a panel discussion and questions from the audience.

Stone visited the Institute, accompanied by his son Sean Stone, a director and actor. He spoke with Faculty and Members, and, in the company of Freeman Dyson, was shown the Institute’s archive. His conversations with Freeman Dyson touched upon J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Institute’s third Director (1947–66), and the predictability of scientific developments in the future.

In his talk in Wolfensohn Hall, Stone focused on his film Alexander, a fourth version of which is in preparation. He shared with the audience his passion for the man who arguably and most radically changed the course of ancient history through his campaigns from his native Macedonia to India. Following a tradition that goes back to Johann Gustav Droysen’s History of Alexander the Great (1833)—the book that laid the foundation for the study of Alexander—Stone narrated the story of a man driven by passion and vision, inspired by mythical heroes, haunted by childhood memories, bereft of his greatest love, and surrounded by suspicion and betrayal. Listening to Stone speak, one could easily be seduced to believe that his is the narrative of an eyewitness, not a modern interpretation of ancient sources. This is where a cinematographic approach to history has a clear advantage over that of the scholarly historical narrative: it creates in the audience the illusion of “being there” and, in so doing, makes strong impressions, arouses empathy, provokes thoughts.

After Stone’s lecture, the director Gary Leva, Adjunct Professor of Film at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, talked about the documentarian’s approach to making a movie about Alexander. By showing a short segment of his film, in which several scholars and a professional soldier respond very differently to the question of whether Alexander was a “multiculturalist,” Leva demonstrated the challenges a director faces when dealing with such a controversial subject. Two other panelists introduced the audience to two further aspects of “history on screen.” Member Nathanael Andrade of the University of Oregon explained various possibilities of integrating movies with historical subjects into undergraduate teaching. Member Yannis Hamilakis of the University of Southampton discussed the role of material culture in movies inspired by ancient themes and the political exploitation of cinematic representations of antiquity.

The audience’s conversation with Stone brought a variety of subjects to the fore: the reasons for the fascination with Alexander, the relationship between film and documentary, the difficulties in finding an audience for movies inspired by history, the selection of actors, the relationship between historical “facts” and dramatization, and the reliability of the source material. “I read everything I could. . . . But you couldn’t make the character, you couldn’t make this movie from those sources,” said Stone. “I had to plunge in and create the Alexander. I had to break down the third and fourth walls. There is just no way you could put it together from those memories. But the love of the men was there; you felt it, and you can hear about it.”

Stone also ad­dressed one of the main objectives of the The Untold History of the United States: to discuss the role of the United States in the contemporary world and to problematize the concept of a world empire. “We look at the history of the last hundred years, we look at the victims of this U.S. policy, and we try to make one understand that it did not need to be so,” said Stone. “We always argue that it needed to be so because we were fighting communism and we were fighting terrorism. We argue not. We go through an enormous amount of work to prove that. And I think we make the point about looking at the world through global eyes, through Chinese eyes, through Russian eyes, through small countries’ third-world eyes. We try to see that we are part of something that is bigger than just the American empire.” Stone concluded with an encouragement for young people to change the world. “Young people can change the world. Young people can dream. That’s the beauty of Alexander, because he is one of the last young people to achieve significant power and do some­thing about it. Can we do something like this in our country? Can someone change the course of where we are heading?”

In the second century B.C.E., the historian Polybios criticized his fellow historian Phylarchos for writing in such a manner that his readers had the impression that they were eyewitnesses to what he was narrating. Eager to arouse pity and empathy among his readers, Phylarchos talked of women clinging to one another, tearing their hair and baring their breasts, and of lamentations of women, children, and aged parents led away in captivity. Polybios resented all that, because he made a sharp distinction between the treatment of the past by the tragic poet, who seeks to thrill and charm an audience in the moment, and the historian, who seeks to educate for all time. Polybios may be right in distinguishing between history and drama, but he is wrong in all other respects: in his assumption that empathy can be separated from cognition, and emotion from reason, and in his assumption that drama is less instructive than historiography. Twenty-two centuries later, audiences have the illusion that they are eyewitnesses of events not thanks to the words of skillful narrators, but thanks to the moving images presented to them by the directors of feature movies and documentaries. The motion picture, the most popular form of dramatization, entertains, educates, and fills us with empathy. In this respect, it is an ally of the historian, not a rival. The dialogue of historians with Oliver Stone indicated the possibilities of interplay between scholarly history and the screen. Welcoming Stone, the Institute’s Director Robbert Dijkgraaf called the occasion of a film director’s visit to the Institute “a first.” The success of this event justifies a sequel: to be continued . . . 

Recommended Viewing: A video of “(Ancient) History on Screen,” a lecture at IAS by Oliver Stone, supported by the Dr. Lee Seng Tee Fund for Historical Studies, may be viewed at

Angelos Chaniotis, Professor of Ancient History and Classics in the School of Historical Studies, is internationally regarded for his original and wide-ranging research in the social, cultural, religious, legal, and economic history of the Hellenistic world and the Roman East. He works in innovative ways on a wide variety of topics: war, memory, identity, emotions, the communicative aspects of rituals, and strategies of persuasion in the ancient world.