The practical mechanics of crucifixion have had a lurid hold on the popular imagination for at least two millennia. The idea that St Peter was crucified upside down was no sooner taken as a sign of his self-proclaimed unworthiness to share the fate of Jesus, than it was reinterpreted as a mark of his common sense. Even a poor fisherman knew that hanging head down brought the oblivion of unconsciousness much more quickly than the usual upright, and excruciatingly painful, position.

One of the most memorable passages in Robert Harris’s new novel, Imperium, describes the famous crucifixion of the six thousand slave comrades of the rebel Spartacus, who had been rounded up by the Romans in 71 BC. Harris imagines the victorious Roman general, Crassus, carefully choreographing this horrific episode of mass slaughter. To ensure that a riot did not break out among the prisoners when they saw what fate lay in store for them, he had them marched along the Appian Way, and taken off in small groups at random intervals to be raised on their crosses, out of sight of the others. Crassus ‘seemed particularly proud of the logistics which had enabled him to crucify six thousand men along three hundred and fifty miles of road’.

My own first encounter with a working cross – an obviously well-used and discarded specimen – nonetheless came as a shock. One nail remained in the cross-bar and there were still traces of the meagre footrest on which the unfortunate victim would have perched (this wasn’t the upside-down variety). An unexpected addition was a vicious belt of torturing metal sticking out of the wood a little above waist height.

This was both a better and a worse encounter than you might be imagining. Better, because this particular instrument of execution was only a prop on a film set of ancient Rome, (re-)built near Hammamet in Tunisia. It had been left over, I would guess, from the recent filming of an Italian TV mini-series on the life of St Peter, starring Omar Sharif, somewhat incongruously, in the title role. Worse, because that nasty extra belt of metal – presumably the vestige of some device for fixing the actor invisibly to the cross – was a stark reminder that imitations of instruments of torture can appear even worse than the real thing. The mechanics of representation can sometimes rival what they try to represent – as was to become clear in this strange, cinematic Rome.

Many of the recent spate of Roman movies and television series have been made in Tunisia. Labour is cheap there. Extras are a bargain and in plentiful supply, even if they give the crowd scenes an ethnic identity which might sit uneasily next to any 19th-century Caucasian vision of the Roman populace. And the nearby ancient sites – for example, the ruins of the town of Dougga or the amphitheatre at El Djem – are better preserved and easier to use as locations than their equivalents in Rome itself. Life of Brian is probably the most famous Tunisian product, the medieval fortress, or ribat, at Monastir doing duty for much of biblical Jerusalem. My visit was a spin-off from a new autumn series of BBC ‘drama-docs’ – Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire – on which I had been an adviser and which had been partly filmed in Hammamet’s reconstructed Rome and elsewhere in Tunisia (including Dougga as a wonderfully convincing ruined and smoking city of Rome after the Neronian fire).

There is, of course, more to the popularity of North Africa among producers than low costs and convenient locations. The Tunisian government has pushed film-making as a money-spinner that is nicely symbiotic with its main industry, tourism. Tourists are attracted by the places in which their favourite movies were shot (not just Roman ‘re-con’ – some classic sequences of Star Wars were filmed here and have generated their own tourist trail round the desert locations). Film crews and actors usefully fill hotel beds during the off-season. It is not an entirely new initiative. As early as 1896, when the country was still under French control, the Lumière brothers shot footage in Tunis, and within a few years there were the beginnings of a local film industry (its first feature was the aptly titled The Girl from Carthage, in 1924).

But the mastermind behind recent developments is a ‘cinematic golden boy’, as Tunisian publicity likes to describe him. The 57-year-old Tarak Ben Ammar is a producer and distributor famous in France for being the only distributor to dare to release Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, in the face of accusations of anti-semitism. He is also a business partner of Silvio Berlusconi, and it was to make a series of dramas about the Roman Empire, Imperium, in a joint venture with RAI Uno, that the Empire Studios were set up in 2000. They took two years to build, cover several acres and are reputed to have cost more than €15 million. As the locals love to point out, there is a marvellous irony in having this mocked-up Rome right in the middle of the territory of Carthage, her iconic enemy.

Most of the key bits of Rome are here – apart from a colosseum, for which they presumably use the real thing at El Djem. The central piazza includes a suitably imposing senate house, temples of Castor and Pollux, of Vesta and of Julius Caesar, plus some more or less convincing Roman statues (one dumpy bronze horse ought to have been sent back to its maker – and certainly would have been by any Roman of taste). The whole thing is lined by two great porticoes, lookalikes of the Basilica Aemilia and Basilica Julia in the Roman Forum, except that here they are complete with their upper storeys. But it is not all grand public buildings. There is an entire Pompeian-style house, with painted reception rooms and an elegant peristyle garden (this must have appeared as many an imperial palace on TV). Tucked away behind are the shops, bars, workshops, back-street slums and the obligatory multi-seater latrine. The costume and prop stores include togas and tunics of every possible kind, cloaks, scanty dresses (one intriguingly labelled ‘Delilah’) and hundreds of helmets and sandals sorted by size – not to mention hardware, from lamp-stands to sedan chairs and a couple of boats.

It would be dishonest to pretend that there wasn’t quite a thrill in walking round this reconstruction, even for an austere professional classicist. True, some of it was very obviously a ‘stage set’. The distant vista, through an archway, of the famous paintings from Livia’s ‘Garden Room’ at Prima Porta turned out to be only that – a distant vista. Step closer, and you discovered it was just a couple of panels propped up on some sheets of hardboard. But in other parts there were fully walk-in buildings. The senate house had a lavish marble interior in red and black, and was kitted out with banks of splendid senatorial chairs. In the back-street bars, with their piles of Roman crockery and grubby cloaks on pegs, you could climb upstairs to cramped bedrooms. In fact, you had to get very close indeed before you spotted that those grubby cloaks were neatly machine-stitched. It took a brisk tap to confirm that all the columns and magnificent inlaid panels were actually made of plywood and plaster.

Short of being constructed in marble, is it an authentic reconstruction of Rome? The answer, predictably, is yes and no. The whole place is, in fact, a classic example of a particular cinematic version of authenticity. The message is, invest in the detail and the bigger picture will look after itself. At Hammamet, it would be hard to fault many of the specifics. Most of the sculptures (leaving aside that horse) are based faithfully enough on ancient examples. The elegant beds in the reconstructed Pompeian house might well have been copied from those now on display in the Bardo museum, a hundred kilometres or so away in Tunis. The Latin (of which there was rather a lot scattered round the place, from graffiti to the dedicatory inscriptions plastered across the front of the temples) would by and large satisfy the sternest Mr Chips. This included a more idiomatic version of Life of Brian’s famous dog-Latin ‘Romani ite domum’. In fact, someone had taken the trouble to replicate whole chunks of text, and authentic archaic spellings, which they could only have found in obscure collections unknown even to many classicists.

The problem is that the details don’t quite add up. This is not just a question of all the buildings being set askew, at a very un-Roman angle (fair enough – cameras need to be able to get all-round shots and angle views). It is more the sense that many of the distinctive pieces of bona fide antiquity, which are intended no doubt to legitimate the ‘Romanness’ of the set, end up doing exactly the opposite for anyone who knows much about the ancient world. It is one thing to import a plaster cast of one of the sculptural panels from the Altar of Peace in Rome. But why then incongruously fix this prime example of Roman religious and public art to the wall of a reconstructed warehouse? And if you go to the trouble to copy out little known inscriptions honouring the late second-century BC consul, general and – eventually – despot, Gaius Marius, why do you then stick them on the outside of Julius Caesar’s senate house? And what on earth was the fifth-century BC Athenian grave relief doing set into the wall of the tavern? Learned as their research may be, this is off-the-peg, Ikea antiquity, often misleadingly – even uncomprehendingly – applied.

One response to such carping is obvious enough. This is cinema, not archaeology. Part of the fun (and the point) of the screen is that it can play fast and loose with the prosaic realities of the ancient world. Its ability to engage, convince and inform its audience does not depend entirely, or even mainly, on getting everything exactly right in a literal sense. In fact, the most strictly accurate reconstruction of the ancient city-scape might well be the least evocative (it would appear more like Kabul than Empire Studios and turn audiences away in their thousands). The panel from the Altar of Peace is here used as a visual shorthand, prompting us not only to ‘think ancient Rome’ but also to mobilise our recollections of all those other cinematic Romes in which this, or objects like it, have played their part. It is completely missing the point to worry about whether or not we have been shown it in its correct position.

That is all true. But these are factors, I suspect, that sway the cinema critic more often than the movie-maker or television producer. Anyone who has acted as a historical consultant for a film or television company knows how preoccupied they are with what seems, even to an academic, pedantic correctness. It is hard not to feel that one narrow version of detailed accuracy (which the consultant is there to ensure or, at least, rubber stamp) is acting as a useful alibi for all kinds of misrepresentation on the wider scale – and as a PR device to appeal to potential viewers. It’s rather like the way ‘talking heads’, carefully cut and edited, are used to validate the daftest ideas on documentary shows. Innocent academics imagine that they are being interviewed because of their expertise. In fact, they are being interviewed because of their title and the authority of the book-lined study that appears in the background of the shot. And if they don’t say what the programme-maker wants, their remarks will not be broadcast.

I can think of almost no big historical movie over the last twenty years which has not boasted that its details have been rigorously checked by scholars of the most impeccable credentials. Robin Lane Fox famously advised on the Macedonian phalanx for Alexander, in exchange – it has been reported – for a bit-part in the cavalry charge. Even the ghastly Troy (which was about a mythical war in any case) set staff at the British Museum to work on getting the arms and armour ‘right’. Wandering round Empire Studios, a story told me by a colleague years ago came vividly to mind. He had been working as adviser on a film about the Roman Empire. One morning he was phoned and given till lunchtime – film-makers don’t like waiting for their facts – to tell them what breed of dog they should use for a small walk-on canine role. That kind of question is always the worst, and deserves a speedy retort along the lines of ‘mongrel’. But he dutifully went to the library to track down the skeletal evidence in archaeological reports, until the absurdity of the situation dawned. Could a film company that was massacring almost every basic fact about ancient social life in a riot of orgies and asses’ milk seriously be worried whether the Romans kept labradors or alsatians? Or was it that the obsession with irrelevant correctness somehow legitimated the rest of the nonsense?

The team I worked with on Ancient Rome was a long way above that. Each episode dramatises one key ‘turning point’ in Roman history, from Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC to the Fall of Rome – though because Gracchus was deemed to be a potential turn-off to the primetime BBC 1 audience, the whole thing kicked off with an engagingly bonkers, if painfully unchronological, Nero. In best BBC tradition, the producers and researchers had thought carefully about the nature of a ‘drama-doc’. And they could discuss eloquently what is gained and lost in that historical format – convincingly enough to persuade me, at least. All the same, their first instinct was to put in the opening credits that the whole thing had been ‘verified’ by historians. We compromised on ‘written with the advice of modern historians’. Even then my name ended up appearing first, and in bigger typeface, than the leading actors. Flattering it certainly was, but an odd and revealing priority for a series that was too nervous to start with a Roman who was not a household name. (It reminded me of the story of Lane Fox, who is supposed to have asked – playfully, I hope – that he should appear in the credits of Alexander as, in the old Hollywood formula, ‘. . . and introducing Robin Lane Fox’.)

In the spring parts of the series were filmed at the Hammamet studios (Episode 3, in which we eventually work back to Tiberius Gracchus, probably shows off the reconstruction at its best). Business is certainly booming there. During my visit, some of the special sets that had been built for filming Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s The Last Legion (which is backed by Tarak Ben Ammar and stars Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley) were being dismantled. Another episode of the Italian Imperium series was just arriving on set. Meanwhile, the BBC were back again, this time children’s television, to film a series of Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries, which feature a teenage Roman sleuth called Flavia Gemina and some predictable fireworks around Pompeii. They had already been there for well over a month (before a planned move to Malta for a lookalike Vesuvius), and were accompanied by all the technical and back-up staff that these operations require: from the doctor and the animal handler to the gap-year ‘runner’ and the local women who seemed to be working full-time in the costume department, running up ever more tunics.

It was hard to resist the thought that the intended audience might have been almost as happy with a series made at White City in front of the wobbly cardboard sets that were good enough for us when we were kids. Or, as a curmudgeonly licence-payer might ask, is the BBC really sending this vast crowd of actors, directors and support staff all round the Mediterranean to make a children’s show that could have been done at a tiny fraction of the cost at home? Can’t we use our imaginations and suspend disbelief any more?

But then expense, as well as detail, is taken to underwrite authenticity. Even the Ancient Rome series was advertised, Cleopatra-style, on a BBC website with examples of its ‘no-expense-has-been-spared’ extravagance: ‘1115m of undyed fabric were used in the making of the costumes for the film on Caesar alone’ or, ‘the series got through 25 bottles of sun-tan lotion just in Tunisia.’ Though, presumably with that same curmudgeonly licence-payer in mind, this is balanced with some praiseworthy examples of public-service prudence. ‘Caesar’s breastplate was used by five other characters in the series. His mantle was cut up and turned into scarves for soldiers.’ Or, offering an interesting inter-faith angle, ‘Jewish priests’ tunics were decorated and turned into the robes of Christian women’ (one of the turning points being the Jewish revolt suppressed by the Romans in 70 AD, another the conversion of Constantine to Christianity).

But, in a strange way, it was the sheer number and diversity of people involved with Empire Studios that gave the place its unexpectedly compelling character. It did not feel like merely a film set, a backdrop to something else. It felt as if there was a community of people living and working there. Or, in other words, it felt a little bit like the city it was pretending to be – with the loafers under the arches, the seamstresses at their sewing and the painters busy touching up the ‘Pompeian’ house just as they would have done in antiquity. The anecdotes that the staff told also repeatedly bridged the gap between representation and reality. Just a week before filming was due to start on its first production in 2002, I was assured, they had their own ‘Fire of Rome’, when the Temple of Castor burned down (and had to be reconstructed at more than Neronian speed). And there were stories about trouble with their very own Roman mob. When they hired more than a thousand local extras to fill the forum, rioting really did break out in the crowd and the police had to be called. (Not an option in ancient Rome itself.)

What on earth will happen to this place when the bottom falls out of the current buoyant market in ‘sword and sandals’? With the backing of Ben Ammar, the piquant idea that Empire Studios will turn into a real ruin must be an unlikely one. Presumably – as classicists go back to their libraries and forget the glamour of the media – Hammamet will reinvent itself to meet some new vogue. Egypt? Maybe even Carthage?

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