The First King: Birth of an Empire

The spoken dialog is entirely in Old Latin!

Well, yes; it’s a movie, after all, so what do you expect? There surely are many movies in Old Latin, a.k.a. Archaic Latin, right?

Well, maybe not.

At least this one has subtitles. It starts in 753 BCE, so it has to be in Old Latin. (There’s also a dubbed version, but please don’t watch that: I’m sure it would lose a lot of the flavor of the original.)

You probably have several questions at this point. Why Latin, whether Old or not? And what is “Old” Latin—isn’t all Latin old? And is it a good movie?

One question at a time, please.

Here are some brief answers:

  • It’s in Latin because it’s the story of the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus.
  • Old Latin is what was spoken before Classical Latin—earlier, say, than 100 BCE. If you’ve learned Latin in school, you’ll still find the dialog very hard to understand: Old Latin is very different from what you learned, and we’re also not accustomed to hearing it spoken. I understood words and phrases here and there, but the subtitles are essential.
  • Is it a good movie? Well, the acting is amazing, and the cinematography is beautiful. If you’re into the craft of movie-making, you will certainly admire this film. The trouble is that it’s so irredeemably violent that IMHO it’s unwatchable; more on that below.

This story about the founding of Rome is nothing like what you (or I) learned in school. Unlike the standard legends, this version is meant to be hyper-realistic, and thus is well-suited to film rather than print—if you can manage to sit through it.

And therein lies the problem.

I watched it all the way through because it was my duty as a reviewer, but I can’t recommend it unless you are de-sensitized to gore and violence, or are so enthralled by the cinematography that you can ignore the gore. I admit that the beautiful sets remind me of some of the sanitized portrayals of primitive societies in various Star Trek episodes, but those never show close-ups of bloody reality. I would like to give you a couple of dramatic examples, but I can’t even bring myself to type the descriptions. I almost feel sick just thinking about them.

So watch it at your own risk. If you do, be sure to go all the way to the credits at the end, where you see the gradual spread of Rome from its original tiny settlement (which takes place just past the end of the film) to the Republic and then the Empire.

Categories: Linguistics, Movies & (occasionally) TV