The Guardian has a list of things you can learn about the ancient world from the movies:

In the late 1950s, Hollywood was convinced ancient Greeks spoke a sort of Shakespearean English that would even have seemed out of place in Stratford in 1930. Richard Burton, in the title role in Alexander the Great (1956), declaims as if he were doing Hamlet. The odd American accent has always crept in (notably Richard Egan playing King Leonidas in The 300 Spartans in 1962), but an Irish accent is now more or less de rigueur, as in Oliver Stone's remarkable Alexander (2004), in which a group of young Irishmen evidently modelled on U2 manage to take over the entire known world.

Goddess of love, invariably played by Ursula Andress or a blonde, voluptuous lookalike.

A heel, but a heroic one, especially when played by Brad Pitt (in Troy, also made in 2004, a big year in Greek cinematic history).

Alexander's tutor and a bit of a fascist, encouraging the boy to try to wipe out inferior races and take over the world. (A brief Google search is inconclusive on whether this is a legitimate reading of his Nicomachean Ethics.)

Put it on. There's a spear, sword or arrow heading your way any minute.

Every film about ancient Greece oozes with it. Though apart from the torrents of the stuff that flow through Greek cities when a rival army comes to rape and pillage (which is about every second Thursday), the streets are remarkably clean.

See Hephaestion.

Trojan soothsayer who has had a very bad press. OK, she was a nutcase, but her predictions about the fall of Troy were spot on.


Hollywood scriptwriters have not shied away from this central philosophical issue. To what degree did the Greeks, obsessed as they were with oracles, omens and the whims of the gods, see themselves as free? This is what the Ray Harryhausen films Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981) are largely about. "Zeus cannot drive men to do what they do not wish to do," a priestess tells King Pelias in the former as he is about to slay the daughters of the king he has just deposed. "I never arrange precise details," a befuddled Zeus admits later. He occasionally summons up a tempest or a tsunami to destroy cities, but dodge his arbitrary displays of temper (evidently born of boredom amid the serenity of Olympus) and you're more or less on your own.

Man who speaks very loudly about Athenian freedom. Largely irrelevant as philippics are distinctly uncinematic.

Wretch who betrays King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans by showing the Persians a back route into the pass at Thermopylae. Common-or-garden guy out for sex and money in The 300 Spartans. Hideously deformed Spartan outcast in the new remake, unenterprisingly called 300, based on the Frank Miller graphic novel.

There is a theory that the spate of films about ancient Greece in the 1950s and early 60s was inspired by the cold war, with the eastern bloc seen as threatening the time-honoured freedoms of the west. That is the obvious subtext of The 300 Spartans ("The whole of Asia is descending upon us"; "Value freedom before life - the Spartan code"; "Only by being united will we avoid slavery", etc), and it is intriguing that there should now be a new version just as we are obsessing about the so-called "clash of civilisations". But there is another theory that Hollywood's obsession with blockbusters and Greco-Roman-biblical spectacle in the 50s and 60s was simply a response to the threat posed by TV. Please don't ask me which theory is correct.

Numerous, argumentative, demanding, interventionist and irritating. Sit around on Mount Olympus causing trouble, and treat mortals as playthings. Hardly surprising they lost out to monotheism a few centuries later.

Beware Greeks bearing ... especially large wooden horses.

Young men, especially the unruly, heroic ones, wear their hair long and shaggy; gnarled, middle-aged ones, tousled; old ones (usually poets, philosophers or interpreters of oracles), short and white.

Bloody important to the Greeks. "Come back in victory with your shield, or dead on it," as the Spartan women charmingly told their husbands as they prepared for battle.

Tricky subject. Is Alexander a hero or a psychopath? Ditto Achilles. In truth, they're both bonkers - forever trying to take over the world or lay waste to Thebes and Troy. Alexander had a mother complex - both the Richard Burton and Oliver Stone films offer Freudian interpretations of his bizarre behaviour - and Brad Pitt's Achilles is constantly twitching his eyes as if he's several arrows short of the full quiver. The Trojan Hector is a true hero - a good family man forced to fight for his brother and his city. And best of all is Hercules, who in the delightful Disney cartoon film (1997) puts love before his place as a god in Olympus (a classic creation myth). "It's not the size of your strength that counts," Zeus wisely tells his now-mortal son, "but the strength of your heart."

Alexander's ultra-close male friend, muse and probably lover. Oliver Stone attributed the failure of his movie to the fact that Alexander's bisexuality did not go down well in Peoria.

Helen of Troy (née Sparta)
The face that launched a thousand ships - and then sank quite a few of them. Trouble, basically.

Alive at the time of the battle of Thermopylae in 480BC, and wrote a brilliant script for The 300 Spartans. It spent the next 2,500 years in development.

Homer's tale of the Trojan war. Its climax is the death of Hector at the hands of Achilles, not the strategem of the Trojan horse and the fall of Troy. This led to Homer being dropped as a scriptwriter by Warner Bros for Helen of Troy (1955) - which, with its lavish sets, beautiful but statuesque leads Rossana Podesta and Jack Sernas, and direction by Robert Wise (who later directed The Sound of Music), should really have been a musical. Okla-Homer.

Jason and the Argonauts
The better of Ray Harryhausen's two Greek myth movies - the later Clash of the Titans feels like a retread - though, even here, the gods constantly dropping in from Mount Olympus to lend a hand in the quest for the Golden Fleece becomes a little wearing.

Power-crazed, middle-aged, one-eyed, fond of drink and inclined to take several wives (except for the Spartan king Leonidas, who is brave, faithful, lion-hearted and has at least two eyes).

Everyone speaks some form of English, so fortunately Greeks, Macedonians, Persians and all those further east subjugated by Alexander have no need of interpreters. See also Accents.

Important accessory for white-haired poets.

Mother complex
See Alexander, though with Angelina Jolie as your mother (in Stone's version), who wouldn't have Oedipal urges?

Can't quite remember who he was or in which film he appears - my head is swimming with all these Greeks - but I'm sure he pops up somewhere and am really short of Ns.

Huge in ancient Greece - in the films, boys are forever practising their gymnastics and javelin-throwing to win gold for Sparta, Athens or one of the smaller states. They were held once every four years, with soldiers given leave from fighting to compete. The athletes performed naked, which was great for TV ratings. The games did not cost 10bn drachmas to stage, nor lead to increases in council tax. Ancient Britons never used to win anything, so no change there.

A bit like producers, in that they always have to be consulted. Some, unseen, deliver their predictions in perfect rhyming couplets. Only in 300 do we see an oracle in operation - a writhing woman whispering into the ear of an emissary. These days, apparently, they email.

Largely absent from movies thus far. We eagerly await Oliver Stone's take on The Symposium.

Trojan prince whose inability to keep his tunic on when he meets Helen (then of Sparta) sparks a bloody war, alters the course of world history, causes the death of his brother Hector, and inspires The Iliad. Should have been Asbo'd. A hero in the 1955 version; bit of a twerp in the 2004 film Troy, where Achilles is the centre of the action.

Not a guy to get on the wrong side of. Zeus's hitman in Clash of the Titans, when he destroys Argos. (It seems they'd sold him a dodgy DVD player.)

Every king has one, but apart from Queen Gorgo in 300 (she gets to stab a corrupt councillor) and Alexander's snake-mad, power-crazed mum Queen Olympias, they're just part of the furniture.

An even more attractive subject than Greece for Hollywood, because the goodies and baddies are easier to identify. There's too much psychological complexity and moral confusion in Greek myth and history for Hollywood producers to take on board (see their treatments of Achilles and Paris, and the question of whether Alexander is a hero or villain). Give them a Christian, a lion and a sex-crazed Roman emperor any day.

Notable by their absence in films about Sparta, even though they were the bedrock of Spartan society. Presumably acknowledgment of Sparta's large slave population would sit oddly with a portrayal of a heroic society that valued freedom.

No, not all the stagey English actors who have made big bucks playing Greeks (Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Cedric Hardwicke), but the 700 brave men who stood (and died) beside the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. Presumably, a film called The 700 Thespians just wouldn't have had the same appeal.

Occasionally visible under the dangerously short skirts male warriors wear.

Greek god of soundtracks. Produced one for Stone's Alexander that sounded remarkably like his earlier effort for Chariots of Fire - about British Olympians, of course.

The cornerstone of Greek life. How the Greeks managed to invent drama, philosophy, mathematics and medicine I can't imagine, because they seem to have spent their whole time laying siege to cities, conquering the known world, pursuing Persians, raping, pillaging, drinking and arguing with each other in Irish accents.

Largely absent. The odd olive grove is tended, and there's some half-hearted fishing, but otherwise it's all fighting, sex and Dionysian debauchery.

Available, scantily clad and with enormous ... earrings. Don't have much to do except swoon, dance, run from approaching armies, and be raped and pillaged. More active in 300, where they do a bit of killing themselves.

A crazy Persian monarch: eye-rolling and beard-tugging in The 300 Spartans; ultra-camp and covered in gold paint in 300. Big army, but absolutely no brain. Nevertheless, a major figure in world history and extremely useful in these A-Zs.

Not yet invented, unfortunately. The Greeks used triremes.

Top god. Takes himself extremely seriously. Has a nice wife called Hera, who somehow puts up with his numerous infidelities and the fact they've been living together for what seems like an eternity. Generally played by Laurence Olivier, though now it would probably have to be Anthony Hopkins.