Tomorrow night at 9, actor Peter Weller will appear at the Colosseum and other monuments of ancient Rome in the History Channel documentary "Rome: Engineering an Empire." The former RoboCop is one of the experts sharing his knowledge in this superb two-hour companion piece to the current HBO miniseries "Rome."
Weller, 58, who holds a master's degree in Roman and Renaissance art and is working toward a Ph.D., has become one of Syracuse University's most popular professors.
"My fascination with ancient Rome started as a kid back in Texas when my father turned me on to Robert Graves, who wrote 'I, Claudius,'" says Weller, speaking from the South African set of the adventure movie "Prey." "I was always reading about the great emperors of Rome and then I started collecting first-century coins."
Part of Weller's obligation for his M.A. was to take eight students a year to Italy.
"When you do that, you have to study Rome again because the Renaissance is such a rebirth of antiquity," he says. "So during 2001, 2003, 2004 I was doing these field trips to Rome, and then the dean of the Fine Arts Department asked me to teach my own class at Syracuse, ad hoc."
Last year, Weller taught a course called "Hollywood and the Roman Empire."
"It's a classics course posing as a film course," he says. "Eighty kids signed up thinking they'd get an easy A from RoboCop. When they saw the reader was 450 pages, including Homer and Suetonius, a quarter of the class dropped out. Those that stayed had a blast reading a portion of the reader, taking a quiz to be sure they'd read it.
"Then I'd show the corresponding movie, one movie a week for 15 weeks, including 'The Odyssey,' 'Troy,' 'Ben-Hur,' 'Julius Caesar,' 'Spartacus,' 'Gladiator.' Then they'd write a paper on how the movie compared with the history. There were 20-year-old kids who thought Marlon Brando was just some fat old actor until they saw him walk on screen as Marc Antony. Then their world cracked open and they rushed to see all his movies."
Halfway through the course, the dean told Weller to take the 15 best students to Italy to show them the places where the history occurred.
Weller, who lives in Manhattan and has a second home in Italy, can often be found holding forth about ancient Rome in restaurants like Northwest. On one occasion, an art director friend named Kevin Boyle told Weller that Vinny Kralyevich, who runs KTI Productions, was making a History Channel documentary about ancient Rome.
"He told me to put on a suit and go downtown to the old Bowery Bank - because it has neo-Roman architecture - where they'd like to interview me on tape about Rome," Weller says. They ended up interviewing him for an hour and a half. Last year, the film's producers brought Weller from his Positano home to do a walk-and-talk in the footprints of the ancients in Rome.
In the documentary, he and other experts and historians tell entertaining stories about the Romans' feats of engineering: building a 1,000-foot bridge over the Rhine to invade Germania, constructing aqueducts that delivered 200 million gallons of water per day into Rome, inventing waterproof concrete used to build a sewer system that's still in use today, and building the Colosseum (capacity: 70,000) in seven years.
Is anyone at Shea Stadium listening?
"Julius Caesar built that bridge over the Rhine in 10 days," Weller says. "Ten days! They've been trying to fix the Van Wyck since I moved to New York City in 1971. Twenty years and $20 billion later and we still don't have a subway to JFK."
Weller is proud of his contribution to the documentary.
"Please, I'm a small and honored part of it," he says. "It's a remarkable film and I urge people to see it. I can't wait to show it to my next class of students."