Post #30: 'Star Wars' and the Evolving American Relationship with Ancient Rome
Figure 1: Two of a kind? On the left, Star Wars' Emperor Palpatine; on the right, Rome’s first emperor Augustus, as portrayed in the Prima Porta statue.
The United States has a long history with ancient Rome. Its government was created on the model of the Roman Republic by the Founding Fathers, which they idolized and feared the subsequent Empire. This anxiety has resounded through American culture long after the eighteenth century, particularly in popular culture. In this post I look at how the Star Wars series of films reflect America’s evolving relationship with Rome.
Star Wars Episodes IV-VI (released from 1977-1983), tell the story of the Rebellion’s struggle with and eventual overthrow of the totalitarian Galactic Empire, headed by Emperor Palpatine and his enforcer, Darth Vader. Episodes I-III (released from 1999-2005) take the narrative back to the creation of the Empire, which was orchestrated by a senator from the planet of Naboo, Sheev Palpatine (see figure 2). By manipulating events behind-the-scenes, Palpatine first becomes Chancellor and then convinces the senate that he should be granted “emergency powers” to deal with a military crisis (of his own concoction, unbeknownst to them). Palpatine soon declares that the only way to create a stable society is to end the Republic create the Galactic Empire.
The book Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema (Oxford 2001) contains an excellent chapter by Martin Winkler that traces multiple connections between Star Wars Episodes I, IV, V, and VI and the ancient Roman Empire. He points out that in Lucas’ vision, Star Wars reverses the narrative of decline of the historical Roman Empire. Whereas ancient Rome stumbled from a republic to an empire, which eventually dissolved and gave way to other political structures, in Star Wars the galaxy’s Old Republic is overthrown by Emperor Palpatine and his goons, who are in turn defeated by the Rebels, who institute the New Republic. Winkler contends that Star Wars is George Lucas’ way of “resurrecting” the “good” version of the Roman Empire, which the historian Edward Gibbon (The Decline of the Roman Empire) and others have located in the years 96-180 AD, the reign of the so-called “Five Good Emperors” (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius). Winkler's observation is insightful in that it reveals American culture’s anxiety about the unresolved fall of Rome. There never was a “savior” to bring the Empire back to a Republic; Russell Crowe’s Maximus in Ridley Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator is ahistorical wish fulfillment.
When the first three Star Wars films were released, the U.S. was recovering from the trauma of the Vietnam War. Protestors associated Vietnam with American imperialism, and in the wake of that unsuccessful conflict, Americans reacted strongly against the notion of an American empire. Thus Star Wars enacts a desire for America to return the ideals of republicanism and turn away from imperialism. After the United States’ exit from the war in 1973, this return must have seemed like a very real possibility, and 1983’s Return of the Jedi triumphantly celebrates the defeat of the Empire, in part through the technologically inferior Ewoks, whom Lucas has said represent the Viet Cong (see figure 3).
In the prequel trilogy, we see a very different fear: that America has become the Roman Empire.
Figure 4: Columns line the walls of the Naboo palace (left) , and, visible in the same shot, the bottom half of a statue wearing a toga, similar to a first-century A.D. statue of a Roman man (right).
Figure 5: The arch outside the palace of Naboo that appears at the end of The Phantom Menace (left) is a nod to Roman victory arches, such as the first-century A.D. Arch of Titus (right).
Whereas in Episodes IV-VI ancient Rome was in the background, the prequel trilogy makes much more direct references. The influence of Roman material culture is felt in the palace of Naboo, with its columns and neo-classical statues (see figure 4), as well as the victory arch on its grounds (see figure 5). Episode II’s Jedi Temple library also makes use of columns and busts line the stacks (see figure 6). At a deeper level, Senator Palpatine’s transformation of the Republic into the Empire is highly reminiscent of the career of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor (see figure 1) in the late first century B.C. At the premiere of Episode III in 2005, George Lucas also associated the decay of the Star Wars Republic and the rise of the Empire with contemporary history in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq (and Vietnam). The subject of the prequel trilogy is, like the original trilogy, the American struggle to avoid becoming the Roman Empire, but Episodes I-III assert that we are Rome, Episodes IV-VI asserted that we were not. For Lucas and the generation who had seen U.S. troops leave Vietnam in 1973, America had seemingly abandoned the path of the Roman Empire and returned to its Roman Republic model. But the Gulf War in the early 1990s and George Bush's decision to send U.S. Troops to Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 (with no end in sight in 2005) made Lucas believe that the United States was on the road to becoming the Roman Empire once again.
From the prequel trilogy’s interest in emphasizing the Roman-ness of the Republic, 2015’s The Force Awakens returns to Episodes IV-VI’s emphasis on twentieth-century parallels. The First Order’s leader is the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke, whose title evokes the totalitarian governments of contemporary Iran and North Korea. In a rally on Starkiller base, General Hux rants to the gathered troops about the imminent end of the Republic and the Senate in a scene that evokes Nazi rallies (see figure 7). We don’t yet know everything about Snoke’s background and his intentions, but his narrative seems to be very different from Palpatine’s. Whereas Palpatine carefully manipulated politics from the inside to become Emperor, Snoke appears to have worked from the outside to destroy the Republic.
At this moment is the most we can say about the narrative post-Return of the Jedi is to note the desire to re-enact the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Empire. As with Episodes IV-VI, our heroes are outside, looking to combat the evil forces that desire to see the end of democracy. This plotline seemed arbitrary in Episode VII. Where did the First Order come from? Are they the remnants of the mostly-defeated Empire, the ghosts of Rome, or are they an entirely new group? From the perspective of the evolving relationship with ancient Rome, what matters more is the fact that Americans want to be seen in this cultural moment as the underdog and not as Rome. This is more possible after the Obama-ordered end of the War in Iraq in 2010. At heart Star Wars is a fantasy of resisting and overcoming the Roman Empire again and again. This is why The Force Awakens dealt so cursorily with the New Republic--demonstrating that the narrative that truly matters is resistance to the empire, not the workings of a republic.
The newest Star Wars film, Rogue One, is set to be released today. Rogue One is set just before the time of A New Hope, and so it features a nascent Rebellion attempting to destroy the Empire’s weapon of mass destruction, the Death Star. In terms of its relationship with Rome, I haven’t noticed anything particularly revealing in trailers. In any case, Rogue One will return audiences to the same underdog position that they experienced in Episodes IV-VII, resisting an Empire that the audience knows will triumph in this case. There has already been something of a firestorm about the politics of the film (Atlantic story #1 and #2, Vulture), with the writers suggesting that the film is anti-Alt Right and Disney CEO Bob Iger arguing the film is not political. Of course, all art is political because it’s historically contingent, but aside from that, we should remember that Rogue One was in production long before Trump was even a candidate for president. But what will Star Wars films look like post-Trump? Perhaps the Donald's presidency will usher in a new era of imperialism, though his isolationist stances during the campaign suggest not. Still, some have already likened him to Emperor Palpatine (see figure 8). Will Star Wars films produced in this landscape alter America's relationship with Rome further? Are We Rome?, a 2008 book by Cullen Murphy asked. It's not a matter of "yes" or "no", but which version.
Figure 1: Twentieth Century Fox (Return of the Jedi) and Wikimedia Commons (Augustus of Prima Porta).
Figure 2: Twentieth Century Fox (Attack of the Clones).
Figure 3: Twentieth Century Fox (Return of the Jedi).
Figure 4: Twentieth Century Fox (The Phantom Menace) and Wikimedia Commons (male Roman with toga statue).
Figure 5: Twentieth Century Fox (The Phantom Menace) and the author’s personal photo (the Arch of Titus).
Figure 6: Twentieth Century Fox (Attack of the Clones).
Figure 7: Twentieth Century Fox (The Force Awakens).
Figure 8: The Huffington Post.