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|Alec Guinness||Marcus Aurelius|
In the late second century A.D., the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius fights to keep Germanic barbarians from invading his northern territories. His deputies are the Greek ex-slave Timonides (a closet Christian) and the stern and honest general Gaius Livius. Livius has close connections with the imperial family, being the lover of Aurelius' philosopher daughter Lucilla and a friend of her brother Commodus. Nevertheless, he is amazed to hear that Aurelius wants to make him his heir. Despite his military obligations the emperor has egalitarian ideals, dreaming of a day when Rome grants equal rights to men of all nations. He knows that he will not live to achieve this end, and trusts Livius to do so more than his charismatic but brutal son. The discovery that his father has effectively disinherited him hurts Commodus immensely, and damages the almost brotherly relationship he had enjoyed with Livius.
Aurelius summons all the governors of the Roman empire to his headquarters, intending to announce Livius' future accession. Before he can do so he is poisoned by Commodus' cronies, who hope to secure their own political future by putting their friend on the throne. Sure enough, Livius feels that a non-aristocrat such as himself would never be accepted as emperor without Aurelius' explicit backing; he lets his old friend take the position instead. Commodus, who was not part of the murder plot, is left feeling helplessly angry at his deceased father. He dedicates himself to undoing all Aurelius' policies; this involves blatant favoritism towards Rome and Italy, which are enriched by ferocious taxation of the provinces that were to be their equals.
Meanwhile Livius' army scores an important victory on the frontier, capturing the German chieftain Ballomar and his aides. Timonides wins the Germans' trust by successfully undergoing an ordeal, having his hand thrust in a fire; with his help, Livius decides to put Aurelius' policy into effect despite disapproval from Commodus. Lucilla helps convince Livius to defy the emperor, since she loved her father as much as Commodus hates him. A speech by Timonides persuades the Roman Senate to let the German captives become peaceful farmers on Italian land, thereby encouraging their fellow barbarians to cooperate with Rome instead of fighting it. Commodus is furious, and sends Livius back to his frontier post in what is effectively a sentence of banishment. Lucilla is forced to go to Armenia, with whose king she shares a loveless political marriage.
Commodus is compelled to recall Livius in order to put down a rebellion by Rome's eastern provinces. When he arrives at the sight of the unrest, Livius is horrified to find that Lucilla is behind it. She tries to persuade him to join her in making a splinter state, free of her brother's influence, but he feels that Roman civilization will collapse if it is broken into pieces. The issue is settled in an unexpected manner when Lucilla's husband calls in Rome's archenemy Parthia to help the rebelling forces fight Livius. The sight of the dreaded Parthian cavalry so panics the defecting Romans that they go back over to Livius, swelling his army and allowing him to score an immense victory. The king of Armenia is killed, and Commodus sends word that Livius is to be made joint ruler of Rome. The condition for this reward, however, is that Livius is to wreak hideous punishments on the populations of the disloyal provinces.
Rejecting this latest piece of brutality, Livius and Lucilla take their army to Rome and order Commodus to abdicate. He responds by bribing away the soldiers' loyalty and massacring Timonides and the population of the German colony (the latter action ensuring centuries of future hostility between Romans and Germans). The fawning Senate declares Commodus a god, and Livius and Lucilla are sentenced to be burned alive as human sacrifices to the new deity. This victory for Commodus is accompanied by a terrible private discovery-- he is not of royal blood, being the product of illicit sex between his promiscuous mother Faustina Minor and a gladiator. His mind unhinged by this, Commodus makes the bizarre decision of challenging Livius to a duel for the throne. The two fight with javelins in the Roman Forum, and Livius eventually runs Commodus through. The Senate hastily offer to make Livius emperor, but he refuses; the Roman government is now too corrupt for him to fix. He slips away with Lucilla, leaving Commodus' old advisers to bicker about who will take the emperor's place.
A voice-over epilogue states that this political infighting continued for the rest of Roman history, leading to the imperial government's eventual collapse.
DVD : 2001-02-28