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  • Writer's pictureAntonio Reale

The Dark Knight and its Roman connections

The Dark Knight shocked the cinematic establishment in 2008. Christopher Nolan, the film's director, replaced the campy humour and family-friendly aspects of superhero films before with a film resembling a psychological thriller and character study instead. Up until this point, DC Comics films had become a Hollywood laughing stock with 'Catwoman' (2004) released before Nolan's first foray in 2005 being one of the worst received films of all time. Even Marvel (the other great superhero movie studio) had not dared anything of 'The Dark Knight's' ambition. In fact, the very name of this film, which for the first time did not contain batman in the title, indicated the break with the aforementioned categorisation of the genre.

The film opened to worldwide success, garnering 2 Oscars and being nominated for a further 6. Widely regarded as one of the best films of the 2000s, it has ranked within Empire magazines top 20 greatest movies of all time and held in high esteem by the famous critic Roger Ebert who called it "a haunted film that leaps beyond its origins and becomes a complex tragedy". Particular praise was heaped on the individual performance of Heath Ledger's Joker who brought unbridled anarchy and spontaneity to the role and famously did his own makeup on set. As well as this, the intricacy of the plot, with its innovative focus on the theme of chaos embodied above all by the morally challenging ferry scene, gave Nolan deserved kudos too.

Fig 1: The joker in a confrontation with Rachel 'The Dark Knight' (2008)

The plot centred around a criminal underworld that had been for years hounded by the combined forces of batman and Harvey Dent, the new district attorney in Gotham. In their desperation, they turned to the anarchist-cum-terrorist joker for help. Instead, the man hired to kill the batman turns the entire system of policemen and mobsters on its head by creating fear and chaos among the citizenry. Such chaos eventually leads to the murder of Rachel Dawes (fiancé of Dent and love interest of Bruce Wayne) that sends the previously honourable Harvey Dent into madness until he is killed by the batman.

Thus the film does not centre on the batman per se, but examines the effects of his vigilantism on the escalating situation in Gotham and questions the extent of depravity the batman is willing to go to stop an even greater form of evil. This same idea of escalation is used in the examination of Harvey Dent's fall from respected public official to callous dispenser of death at a coin toss.


It is precisely with this central theme of the film that the world of the ancient Romans is brought sharply into view in an atypical scene for a superhero flick. The main characters happen to meet in a luxury restaurant. At the table are Bruce Wayne, his Russian girlfriend (clearly meant as a status symbol more than anything), Rachel Dawes who is Bruce's true love interest and Harvey Dent. The four discuss the merits of batman's vigilantism for the city with Harvey Dent, who will later turn villain, ironically defending the batman's prosecution of justice outside legal bounds whereas Bruce's girlfriend Natascha shows she is more than part of Bruce's act when she stands up for democracy within the legal system, using Dent as an example of a democratically elected and popular district attorney. Already, Nolan probes this dichotomy of the batman's vigilante justice of arbitrary expediency and the idealism of Gotham's "white knight" Dent. Fig 2: the restaurant scene in 'The Dark Knight' (2008)

This very aspect of the debate will ultimately have tragic consequences as Dent falls from grace to become Two-Face, unable to remain incorruptible in an indecent time. Such a disparity forces this quotation from Dent's lips:

"When their enemies were at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn't considered an honour, it was considered a public service" -Harvey Dent

The irony of the 'White Knight' touting expedient usage of emergency powers over democracy helps expose the frailties in Dent's attempt to clean up the city honourably, nevertheless, Dent's quip draws a connection between the batman and the ancient position of dictator in Ancient Rome.


The Roman dictatorship (not to be confused with the emperors who came later) was a position within the Roman Republic that acted in a similar vein to emergency acts in modern nation-states. It gave a man appointed by the senate total power over the nation for a period of 6 months or until the task allotted to him had been completed. These tasks took up a range of different forms: the most common one being the leading of Roman armies into battle. Other reasons included the holding of sacred Roman games and even the simple task of driving a nail into the temple of Jupiter -which was an important annual rite-. The position proved useful for tasks that might be hindered by the political infighting inherent in the appointment of two leaders, called consuls, to lead. Though giving the dictator extraordinary power, they still had to listen to the dictates of the senate and could not, without good reason, remove their political opponents from the senate.

One of these early dictatorships that holds particular resonance in the modern psyche is that of Lucius Quinctus Cincinnatus. His story embodies the notion of the public servant dictator that Dent tries to convey. A man of patrician rank in the 5th century BCE, he was made dictator twice in 458 BCE and 439 BCE according to Livy. In the first instance to quell attacks by the Aequi and the second time to put to death the corrupt Plebeian Spurius Maelius who desired kingship. Though great achievements in themselves, what added interest in the Cincinnatus fable in subsequent centuries was how he gave up his power to return to his fields. Though perhaps an invention of Livy as there is very little in terms of alternate sources or archaeological evidence for Cincinnatus, he nonetheless became a symbol for civic virtue and republicanism. Parallels would later be drawn with his return of quasi-monarchical powers with that of George Washington who refused to set himself up as a tyrant but instead retired to his homestead. The U.S. city of Cincinnati would also be named after him. but as alluded to, Cincinnatus' story reached further than revolutionary America and became a paragon for Caesar's assassins prior to Philippi. His story serves a purpose in the context of the plot also, demonstrating the idealism and naivety of Dent as he makes the assumption that power doesn't corrupt or will be wilfully stripped from one so easily as during a period of Roman history that may be no more than myth.

Fig 3: Statue of Cincinnatus in the city of Cincinnati. He is holding both the fasces, a sign of power in the republic held by the lictors, and a plough to show his peaceful return to civilian life

However, by the 2nd century BCE the position of dictator had become outdated as the short term proved inadequate for fighting battles outside of the Italian peninsula. Indeed, its last holder before its revival came towards the end of the 2nd Punic war. Simply put, as Rome expanded throughout the Mediterranean, a dictator was no longer needed but rather great generals at the head of what essentially became their own private armies carried out the task of expansion. Interestingly, it would be these same powerful generals to revive the position again for their own purposes.

In tandem with this later transformation of the role, Rachel gives her swift comeback to Dent's previous line:

"Harvey, the last man that they appointed to protect the republic was named Caesar and he never gave up his power." -Rachel Dawes

This might seem like a throwaway piece of dialogue in a two and half hour movie about a man dressed as a bat but what it illustrates on Nolan's part is a deft usage of the classical world for dramatic purposes. In this case, the line ironically mimics the situation in Gotham where the democratic justice system has failed under the weight of corruption and incompetence to deal with an external threat. Instead, a potentially dangerous solution in the 21st century's answer to the strongman has appeared. His effectiveness is not in question but the potential for negative consequences is certainly real.

As I shall go on to explain, this line is erroneous within the context of the history of the Roman Republic but correct as a line in expressing the dramatic truism of the corrupting effect of power. At its core, Caesar was not appointed to his position as previous dictators were but simply seized power himself and used the role as a constitutional veneer for his actions. Nevertheless, the subsequent lines will marry up nicely (in terms of the theme of power's corruption) with Dent's further phrase of foreboding both for himself and Bruce Wayne in:

"Okay, fine. You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Whoever the Batman is, he doesn't wanna do this for the rest of his life. How could he? Batman is looking for someone to take up his mantle." -Harvey Dent

In a sense, Dent would die a hero before being reborn as the villain Two-Face. Similarly, the batman will attempt to preserve the fragile peace on Gotham's streets achieved by the Dent Act's arrests of organised criminals by taking the blame for Harvey's death at the end of the film and thus becoming a villain to the people of Gotham. In this sense, the link to Rome and the corruption of the noble position of dictator into an oppressive imperial system that would follow becomes clear.

Fig 4: artist's impression of Harvey Dent as Two-face

By the time of Caesar the position of dictator had already been revived to give its holder absolute power. Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (hereafter known as Sulla) was the first to do this. Sulla was a great Roman general who had marched on Rome to gain lucrative rights to a war against Mithridates. While out of the city, under the elder statesman Marius, the senate officially exiled him and relieved him of his command. In response, Sulla declared war on his rivals in the senate and crushed the republican defenders at the Colline gates outside Rome. Claiming the dictatorship with the premise of 'making laws and settling the constitution' (as Caesar would later do) Sulla gained extraordinary powers to rewrite the constitution for far longer than 6 months. Sulla's reign of terror lasted 3 years! During this time he began an organised campaign of proscriptions that ordered the extra-legal deaths of thousands of political opponents. Lists were posted of the alleged traitors and the heads of victims were placed in the atrium of Sulla's villa. Acts of organised political terror that would only be mimicked in the 20th century by Stalin's death orders. Clearly, the position of dictator had transformed totally from its original meaning. None of the original rules associated with the role had been respected but Sulla had instead used it as a modicum to hold on to absolute power. Interestingly though, Sulla does give some token reverence to civic virtue when he retired from political life in 78 BCE to his land (in a way reminiscent of Cincinnatus). Crucially however, Sulla had not been appointed by the Roman citizens to defend the republic. He marched his army on Rome and removed his opposition. Nor was there an external crisis to handle as the problem had been generated by Sulla's own desire for glory in battle. Though brutal in his time, Sulla does not act as an adequate counter-example to Dent's point as Caesar might. Sulla's rule lasted 3 years but the republic had been fatally weakened. It took a man persecuted during Sulla's proscriptions, Julius Caesar, to take inspiration from Sulla's example and bring about the end of the republic.

Fig 5: coin minted during the dictatorship of Sulla 81-78 BCE

Caesar's dictatorship thus followed in a similar vein to Sulla's. He had himself appointed after crossing the Rubicon in 49 BCE as his rivals under Pompey fled to Illyricum. Rather than having himself appointed to defend against foreign enemies, Caesar had triggered the crisis by defiling Roman laws in bringing an army into Italy. His power was not checked by the senate or by Plebeian tribunes as had been custom. Instead, any tribunes who caused trouble were stripped of their rank and Caesar took the tribunician powers for himself. Equally, by taking on censorial powers he replaced the senate with his own supporters as 'prefect of the morals'. In this way, he could have himself appointed dictator without first being consul and with his opposition dead, exiled or silenced into submission. The dictatorship he had himself appointed to was not even his main position but merely used as a tool to hold elections in 49 BCE and held for only 11 days. He would hold the position a further 3 times, later becoming a 'dictator for life' a few weeks before his death. Caesar's power came not from this ancient role but from his loyal Gallic legions. He would instead spend his rule away from Rome campaigning against his rivals, delegating responsibility in the city to others. Nonetheless, Caesar had not been appointed to defend against foreign foes but had appointed himself, even if the new rubber-stamp senate had approved of his decision. Caesar did indeed show a desire to hold onto power and had indeed corrupted a once noble office which resonates with what Nolan is trying to say.

The time was still to come when Caesar would fully showcase his monarchical desires to the Roman people. Famously he seemed reluctant to reject the crown offered to him by Mark Anthony on Lupercalia which became the final straw for many senators to form a grand conspiracy to assassinate him. In private, this desire for power was obvious. Suetonius even notes how Caesar in private mocked Sulla as a dunce for giving up the dictatorship. Only the fateful events of the Ides of March forced Caesar to give up his power. However, roused by the oration of Mark Anthony and Caesar's popular reforms in introducing the Julian calendar the authoritarian system Caesar had reintroduced would later take hold under the auspices of Octavian. As a member of the party of Populares that would support plebeian interests which he did with his resettlement of citizens in new colonies in Gaul, Caesar could be said to have had genuine support from the people of the Empire. Even so, with the right to bestow the dictatorship firmly in the hands of a now pliant senate, any notion that Caesar had been appointed legitimately to protect the realm must be dismissed.

Fig 6: Mark Anthony offering the crown to Caesar by Edmund Ollier (1890)

Though Nolan erroneously portrays Caesar and the dictatorship in this dialogue exchange, further resonances can be found with the events surrounding Caesar's assassination instead. It is potentially this that the dialogue concerning Caesar aims at. Contrary to his position as a representative of democracy, Harvey Dent comes to embody the Caesar of Shakespeare which in turn was inspired by the interpretation of him in Plutarch's 'Lives'. Both are lauded by the people for their feats: Dent for his haranguing of organised criminals and Caesar for his great victories in Gaul. Both could later then be said to be corrupted, Dent by the murder of his girlfriend Rachel and manipulation at the hands of the joker while Caesar becomes corrupted as he destroys the republic's institutions. Brutus, One of Caesar's assassins, must surely parallel the batman himself in 'The Dark Knight'. Even if corruption according to Suetonius had been a feature of Caesar's senatorial life at Rome before the Gallic wars, this parallel holds in the context of Shakespeare's simplification of the history with a noble Caesar falling from grace. The very foreshadowing of Dent's words "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain" become prophetic. This noble killing of Dent, to preserve his reputation and thus his good gains of arrests under the Dent act reflects the nobility of Plutarch's Brutus who kills Caesar out of respect for the republic against the maleficent notions of Cassius who seems to now be modernised into Ledger's joker, someone who just wants to create chaos and "see the world burn". Nolan therefore references the Caesar of fiction in his work to explain the corruption of Harvey Dent and thus sets him up as a Shakespearean tragic hero. In addition, the reference helps mould the flawed character of the batman too, by creating parallels with another well-intentioned character who fails to understand the consequences of his actions in Brutus.

Fig 7: the Booth brothers in a production of Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar'. John Wilkes Booth plays Caesar and seems to later take inspiration from Brutus in his assassination of Lincoln


To conclude, Nolan shows his boldness and expert knowledge of his craft with his attempt to interweave the politics of the late Roman Republic with his story of a man dressed as a bat but unfortunately falls well short of the mark in deploying a degree of historical accuracy to his work. This of course is to be expected, as the director's first job is that to create an enjoyable viewing experience. Even still, the usage of Shakespeare's take on Caesar's assassination, while more subtly alluded to, does indeed add enjoyability to the plot for the history buff and average viewer alike. At the end of the day, 'The Dark Knight', apart from this minor shortfall still remains as enjoyable and relevant as ever in providing both commentary on the limits of democratic power while also catering to a desire for great acting, excellent cinematic scores and action scenes.

Sources used:

- Beard, M. (2015). SPQR a history of ancient Rome. London Profile Books.

-source from wikipedia

- Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, Graves, R. and Rives, J.B. (2007). The twelve caesars. London: Penguin Books.

- Abbott, Jacob. History of Julius Caesar. Dodo Pages, 16 Jan. 2016, pp. 133–38.

- Wasson, Donald L.. "Cincinnatus." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 04 Apr 2017. Web. 27 Jul 2021.

- Toynbee, Arnold Joseph. "Julius Caesar". Encyclopedia Britannica, 11 Dec. 2020, Accessed 28 July 2021.

- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Dictator". Encyclopedia Britannica, 8 Nov. 2019, Accessed 28 July 2021.

- Valgiglio, Ernesto. "Sulla". Encyclopedia Britannica, 2 Apr. 2018, Accessed 28 July 2021.

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